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The end of an era: USAF retires recon film camera used on U-2 Dragon Lady spy plane: Digital Photography Review


Not many planes have the illustrious history of the Lockheed-Martin U-2 spy plane. Flown originally by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and later the United States Air Force, the U-2, nicknamed ‘Dragon Lady,’ has performed high-altitude reconnaissance from more than 21,000m (70,000′). The plane was first introduced in 1956 and remains in service. The original plane ceased production in 1989, succeeded by newer U-2S and TU-2S models.

At Beale Air Force Base in California, a U-2 Dragon Lady has flown the skies as part of the Air Force’s 9th Reconnaissance Wing since 1974 with an onboard Optical Bar Camera (OBC). However, on June 24, the plane flew its final sortie with the OBC. Upon landing, Air Force technicians removed the OBC sensor, marking the end of an era.

Lt. Col. Ralph Shoukry touches the U-2 Dragon Lady ahead of its final sortie from Beale Air Force Base.

The OBC is a wet film camera, so the removal of the OBC from Beale’s Dragon Lady also marks the end of film processing at the 9th Reconnaissance Wing. It’s the end of an era. The final flight was piloted by U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Ralph Shoukry. Beale is home to many spy planes, including RQ-4 Global Hawk spy planes and T-38 Talon trainers. The base also housed SR-71 Blackbirds.

Beale’s U-2 squadron has now embraced digital photography. ‘This event closes a decades-long chapter for Beale Air Force Base and film processing, and it opens another chapter into the digital world,’ said Adam Marigliani, engineering support specialist for Collins Aerospace, a partner with Beale’s intelligence operations.

On June 24, the U-2 and its onboard OBC took its final flight. Members of the 9th Intelligence Squadron, Collins Aerospace and the 1st Training Squadron were on hand to witness the final flight.

‘The OBC mission operated out of Beale for close to 52 years, with the first U-2 OBC deploying from Beale in 1974,’ said 2nd Lt. Hailey M. Toledo. ‘Pulled from the SR-71 [Blackbird], the OBC was modified and flight tested to support the U-2 platform, replacing the long-standing IRIS sensor. While the IRIS’s 24-inch focal length provided widespread coverage, the OBC’s 30-inch focal length allowed for significantly greater resolution.’

Despite being nearly 70 years old, the U-2 Dragon Lady remains an important part of US surveillance operations, even if its film photography days are over. The U-2 will be outfitted with digital sensor packages now. Newer planes have arrived on the scene but have yet to supplant the single-jet recon plane. U-2 planes have flown worldwide, including heavy use throughout the Cold War and during multiple NATO operations. The U-2 has also been used for scientific research and communications, not just military surveillance. The U-2 has also been used by the Royal Air Force and the Republic of China Air Force.

The U-2 Dragon Lady and OBC take off for their final flight together.

The OBC is a panoramic camera that moves back and forth to capture large images. The rotating spy camera spins film through a roller cage, allowing it to capture wide panoramic photos. In a nearly 20-year-old press release, the USAF says that the OBC captured one frame every 6.8 seconds when used on the U-2 recon plane. Master Sgt. Charles Davis of the 9th Reconnaissance Wing said, ‘Each roll of OBC film is 5 inches wide and 10,500 feet long with each frame of imagery measuring more than 6 feet long. With an entire roll of film, the camera can take about 1,600 frames in one mission. Each frame covers roughly 110 square nautical miles in a panoramic horizon-to-horizon format. Basically, a roll of film can shoot an area the size of Colorado.’ Davis continued, ‘This aircraft and this sensor have so much history that it’s almost overwhelming to stop and think about the places these cameras have been and the things they must have seen.’

A technician works on the OBC.

‘All U-2 pilots will retain the knowledge and skills to employ the sensor through a variety of mission sets and operation locations to meet priority intelligence collection needs of the geographic combatant commanders as tasked,’ said Lt. Col. James Gaiser, commander of the 99th Reconnaissance Squadron. ‘The U-2 retains the capability to fly the OBC mission worldwide and, if called upon, to execute in a dynamic force employment capacity… With a growing need for more diverse collection requirements, the U-2 program will evolve to maintain combat relevance with a variety of C5ISR-T capabilities and combat air forces integration roles.’

The OBC could return into service as needed and will remain available when called upon. As of now, no perfect digital replacement has been developed. Digital imaging technology doesn’t quite match the resolving power of the OBC.


All images credit: United States Air Force



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