U-2, the sweary spy plane

In the 1950s the aerospace corporation Lockheed developed a single-seat, high-altitude plane under great secrecy, built by a small team of engineers in the company’s  Skunk Works facility. The craft was not designated B or F, being neither bomber nor fighter: this was a spy plane. But an R for reconnaissance would not be discreet, so it was given a low-key U, for utility, and a 2 for its place in the development chain.

That’s the official story behind the U-2’s name, and there’s no real reason to doubt it. But there’s an apocryphal – and sweary – alternative, described by Phil Patton in his book Travels in Dreamland: The Secret History of Area 51 (Orion, 1997). Patton’s anecdote features top test pilot Tony LeVier and pioneering aircraft designer Clarence Johnson, who ran Skunk Works and was nicknamed Kelly for his pugnacious streak.

On the U-2’s maiden trip in 1955, LeVier was in control and Johnson flew behind in support. It was a tough aircraft to fly, nicknamed the Dragon Lady for good reason, apparently:

The plane’s long wings gave it so much lift that it was hard to land. It was hard to see out of the cockpit too, and before he went up for the first flight, LeVier planned just to taxi [move slowly along the ground].

‘It went up like a homesick angel,’ LeVier said, more for quotation than anything else, ‘it flies like a baby buggy.’ The only problem was it didn’t want to come down. In the C-47 chase plane, Johnson kept after LeVier to land nose down, but the plane kept porpoising – it would go groundwards and begin a forward and aft wiggle, the ‘porpoise’. After five or six tries, and mounting temper on both sides, LeVier came in and did it the way he wanted to begin with – he stalled the plane to get it on the ground.

Once they were both down, Johnson and LeVier continued to argue. ‘What the hell were you trying to do, kill me?’ LeVier said. He gave Johnson the finger. ‘Well, fuck you.’

‘And fuck you too,’ Johnson replied in kind.

The ‘you too’ attached itself to the aircraft.

Or so the tale goes.

Not a bad tale either, as these things go. But you can safely file it under fake etymology along with fuck ‘for unlawful carnal knowledge’ and shit ‘ship high in transit’.

View of the curvature of the earth, below empty space, from a U-2 spy plane

View from U-2 plane by Christopher Michel, via Wikimedia Commons, licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic.

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