BAGHDAD, Iraq – An American U-2 spy plane (search) crashed while returning to its base in the United Arab Emirates (search) on Wednesday, killing the pilot after a mission in support of U.S. troops in Afghanistan.
The aircraft crashed in the Emirates while approaching the base to land, said a Pentagon official, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the operation. Early reports gave no indication of any hostile fire, but it was too soon to be certain why it crashed, the official said.
The U-2 is a single-seat, single-engine reconnaissance plane that operates at an altitude of more than 70,000 feet and has been used in every major conflict the United States has fought since the aircraft went into service a half-century ago.
Flying beyond the range of most surface-to-air missiles — the pilot must wear a full pressure suit similar to those used by astronauts — the U-2 was famously shot down in 1960 over the Soviet Union (search).
With its bicycle-type landing gear and the challenges of handling the aircraft at low altitudes, the U-2 requires a high degree of precision during landing. Forward visibility is limited, partly because of the extended nose. A second pilot normally "chases" the U-2 while it lands, assisting the pilot by providing information on altitude and runway alignment.
The military did not immediately release the location or circumstances of the crash because it did not want to create problems for the nation where the plane went down. Officials also withheld the name of the pilot pending notification of relatives.
According to the military, the crash happened at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday EDT, which would be early Wednesday in the United Arab Emirates.
In Washington, Lt. Col. Barry Venable, a Pentagon spokesman, said the plane had completed a mission related to Operation Enduring Freedom, the code name for American operations in Afghanistan.
There has been heavy fighting in southern Afghanistan in recent days, with American fighter planes bombarding rebel hideouts with missiles and bombs, killing up to 76 insurgents in fighting Tuesday and Wednesday.
A U.S. security team was at the site of the crash, Venable said.
"The Airmen of the 380th Air Expeditionary Wing mourn the loss of a true American hero in the service of his country," said Col. Darryl Burke, the unit's wing commander.
The wing has been based at the al-Dhafra air base near Abu Dhabi, in the United Arab Emirates, since early 2002 in support of Operation Enduring Freedom. It flies various types of aircraft, including aerial refueling tankers and the Global Hawk — a pilot-less plane about the size of a Boeing 737. Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, visited the wing in August.
Burke appointed an interim investigation board to determine the cause of the crash. It was not clear when the results of the investigation would be completed.
U.S. Central Command said only that the crash occurred in "southwest Asia," a term that can be a substitute for the Middle East.
"The specific location is not releasable due to host nation sensitivities," U.S. Air Force Capt. David W. Small, a Central Command spokesman, said in an e-mail.
The U-2 has been used by the United States for decades, and the new model, the U-2S, entered service in 1994 — 39 years after the first plane went into operation. There are just 36 in the world, 29 being used by the Air Force, five two-seat trainers and two used for high-flying NASA research.
The plane saw extensive use in both Afghanistan and Iraq, before, during and after the war.
In February 2003, then-Secretary of State Colin Powell said Iraq was violating a U.N. resolution by rejecting U-2 reconnaissance flights.
The planes also were used in the 1991 Gulf War, and employed with great success by U.N. weapons inspectors in Iraq in the 1990s to uncover advanced weapons development centers, which were later destroyed.
In January 2003, a U-2 crashed in South Korea. The pilot ejected to safety, but four Koreans on the ground were injured.
The plane was introduced in 1955.
A U-2 was shot down May 1, 1960, over Soviet territory while photographing Soviet missile installations. After parachuting to safety, pilot Francis Gary Powers was captured and later convicted as a spy. He was held for almost two years before being traded for a KGB captive.
In the summer of 1962, the Soviet Union began installing 42 medium-range nuclear missiles in Cuba. U.S. spy planes detected the missiles, and the United States began a naval blockade of the island nation. Tensions peaked when Cuba shot down a U-2 on Oct. 27; Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev submitted to President Kennedy's demand the missiles be withdrawn.