He was in the air for more than eight hours. He was tired, trapped within a heavy helmet and an uncomfortable pressure suit that resembled an airtight cocoon. The air was so thin that he would be dead in seconds without the space suit. He was flying at altitude of 65,000 feet (about 19,800 metres). 95 percent of the atmosphere was below him.
Our pilot could see across whole countries but he was alone in complete radio silence. His food was a form of liquidized paste which was inserted into the helmet through a tube in a special port. The date was 5 July, 1956, and our pilot which was flying a Lochhead U-2 aircraft, was carrying out one of the most important missions of the cold war.
The first U-2, dubbed the ‘Dragon Lady’, was built in utter secrecy and its purpose was to gather intelligence during the Cold War era. It was a remarkable reconnaissance aircraft. It was designed to operate at 70,000 feet (about 21,000 metres), higher and for longer periods than any other aircraft since then. It was a difficult aircraft to fly. At an altitude close to limit, only 6 knots separated the speeds at which low-speed stall and high-speed buffet occurred. If the aircraft slowed beyond the low-speed stall limit, it could lose lift and begin to fall. The pilots had a name for this narrow range of acceptable airspeeds. They called it ‘coffin corner.’