U-2D 56-6721 filled many roles as an operational aircraft (which you can read about in my previous articles if you click here, and here) and her museum duty has taken her to many locations as well. She first went on display at March Field Air Museum in 1978 after retiring as the only remaining U-2D model. In 1996, she was acquired and restored by the Air Force Flight Test Museum, then transferred to an airpark in front of Air Force Plant 42 Site 10. She was appropriately placed there because the current tenant of Site 10 is the Lockheed Skunk Works, who developed this aircraft (though, this particular U-2 was assembled at Lockheed’s Unit 80 in Oildale, California before Lockheed’s presence at Plant 42). In 2001, she was transferred to Blackbird Airpark in Palmdale, California, alongside the prototype A-12 aircraft which was meant to replace her, making an even more appropriate display. One more move awaits this aircraft; when the Air Force Flight Test Museum moves their facility outside the West Gate of Edwards Air Force Base, she’ll be transported there, on display inside a climate controlled hangar for the first time in her history. Until then, she’ll experience the many beautiful seasons of the Antelope Valley.
U-2D #56-6721 was manufactured inside a Lockheed warehouse in Oildale, California called Unit 80. This warehouse, formerly used by Lockheed during WWII, started manufacturing U-2 aircraft when the Skunk Works plant in Burbank exceeded maximum capacity. Parts were trucked in and weeks later, #56-6721 was transported at night via C-124 cargo aircraft to a remote Nevada desert test facility called Watertown Strip (often referred to as Area 51). After flight checkout at Watertown, she was based at Laughlin AFB in Texas. In 1959 the aircraft was damaged, nearly escaping total destruction in a harrowing mishap called “The Miracle at Cortez” (
Originally, #56-6721 flew as an “A” model U-2, but after her mishap, she was reconstructed as a U-2D. This involved replacing her reconnaissance camera with a rear seat. From this rear seat, an engineer could operate an array of retrofitted test sensors. Bill Flanagan, SR-71 RSO, once told me that U-2D #56-6721 is “the world’s lowest, slowest satellite.” Bill was referring to flights performed by this aircraft from 1960 to 1961 during project “Low Card”, (later renamed “Smokey Joe”). In this program, our U-2D monitored rocket launches out of Cape Canaveral, examining their exhaust plumes with optical spectrometer sensors. These sensors would eventually be installed on satellites which would monitor and report any potential Soviet intercontinental ballistic missile launches. This system was called the “Missile Defense Alarm System” (MIDAS).
This aircraft served many more roles in her rich life as a test aircraft. She tracked X-15 flights with IR sensors and monitored film packets as they fell back to earth from Corona and Discovery reconnaissance satellites. Later, in the 1970s, she served as chase aircraft for the canceled Boeing YQM-94 and Ryan YQM-98 reconnaissance drones. Now, she rests on display at Blackbird Airpark in Palmdale, California.