Lockheed Martin Skunk Works is beginning work on a major cockpit upgrade of the U-2S reconnaisance aircraft as part of US Air Force plans to keep the aircraft operational to 2020 and beyond.

The core of the cockpit upgrade will be large (150 x 200mm) colour liquid crystal displays based on the same units originally developed for the C-130J, along with advanced mission system processors and new software. The Skunk Works has now begun the initial two-year development phase of the upgrade effort and plans to complete installation on the 37 strong U-2S fleet between 2000 and 2005.

News of the upgrade comes as Lockheed Martin completes the last U-2R to S conversion. The aircraft has been upgraded with a General Electric F118-101 engine and is expected to be delivered to the headquarters of the 9th Reconnaisance Wing at Beale AFB, California on 21 December.

Lockheed Martin has also proposed a logistics support plan to the USAF which would involve taking over base support of U-2 operations throughout the world. "We will do it with one quarter of the people who do it now," says Lockheed Martin Skunk Works reconnaisance programmes vice- president Garfield Thomas. Operations to be supported will include U-2 bases at RAF Akrotiri in Cyprus, Prince Sultan AB in Saudi Arabia, Osan in Japan, Istres, France and Warner Robins AFB, where the U-2 Systems Programme Office is based. "We've been asked by Air Combat Command to do this," says Thomas, who adds that the plan offers "a huge saving potential". The concept is based loosely on the Total Systems Performance Responsibility (TSPR) plan instituted recently by the Skunk Works to support the F-117A, "-although there's a lot more to the U-2 version" says Thomas. Lockheed Martin hopes to sign up the USAF on the U-2 support deal around October 2000.

A USAF U-2S and NASA ER-2 variant established three new world records on 18 and 19 November. Two were set during a mission from Air Force Plant 42 in Palmdale, California, which involved flying a record payload weight of 1,500kg (3,300lb) to an altitude of 49,000ft (15,000m). The aircraft continued to climb to an estimated 70,000ft once the record had been set, although the real figure is classified. The medium weight record to 49,000ft was previously held by a Russian MiG-29, which reached the target in 1995. The third record, set by a NASA ER-2, was flown from NASA's Dryden Flight Research Centre and involved the breaking of an absolute altitude record for its weight class. The NASA record of 68,700ft surpassed the previous best of 62,500ft established in 1988.

Source: Flight International