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Top secret U-2 spy plane takes off from England

A US spy plane was spotted taking off from England last week as it embarked on another reconnaissance mission in Europe amid a growing tension between Russia and Ukraine.

Photographs of the Lockheed U-2, nicknamed the Dragon Lady after its CIA codename, were captured at RAF Fairford on April 16 as an estimated 100,000 Russian soldiers continued to gather near the Ukrainian border, as well as in Crimea. 

Russian President Vladimir Putin has since signalled that Russia will begin to pull back excess troops, while he created an inflatable army outside Moscow which could be deployed to fool enemy drones and satellites.   

The high-altitude, reconnaissance aircraft has regularly been seen above the base in recent weeks, but both the Ministry of Defence and the U.S. Air Force have refused to reveal why it has arrived.

In February, another of America’s fleet of 32 operational U-2 aircraft was spotted flying over England from RAF Fairford, which acts as the base for these jets while on deployments to Britain. 

The USAF previously confirmed to Metro that these jets are sometimes based at Fairford for ‘routine intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance missions’ which are organised alongside the British government.   

Photographs of the Lockheed U-2, nicknamed the Dragon Lady after its CIA codename, were captured at RAF Fairford on April 16 as an estimated 100,000 Russian soldiers continued to amass near to the Ukrainian border, as well as in Crimea

The high-altitude, reconnaissance aircraft has regularly been seen above the base in recent weeks, but both the Ministry of Defence and the U.S. Air Force were unable to confirm why it had arrived

The high-altitude, reconnaissance aircraft has regularly been seen above the base in recent weeks, but both the Ministry of Defence and the U.S. Air Force were unable to confirm why it had arrived

The USAF previously confirmed that these jets are based at Fairford for 'routine intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance missions' which are organised alongside the British government

The USAF previously confirmed that these jets are based at Fairford for ‘routine intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance missions’ which are organised alongside the British government

The airbase is owned by the Military of Defence but used by the USAF, and is currently expanding to house some 2,000 US personnel and their families.     

The purpose of the latest deployment is unclear, but its presence in Europe could present a warning to Vladimir Putin as he yesterday indicated Russia will begin to pull back troops deployed on the border with Ukraine.

The announcement, made on Thursday, could see an end to the build-up of an estimated 100,000 Russian soldiers who have arrived at the Russian-Ukrainian border in recent weeks.

The military movement had alarmed leaders in Kiev and the West, with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky warning Putin on Tuesday that ‘millions of lives are at stake’ if conflict erupts between the two powers. 

MailOnline has contacted the USAF in Europe for further details. 

It comes as it was announced today that Joe Biden will visit the UK during his first overseas trip in office. 

The US president, 78, will appear in person at the G7 summit in Cornwall in June alongside Boris Johnson, the White House confirmed.

In a statement, it was said the trip aims to highlight Biden’s ‘commitment to restoring our alliances, revitalising the transatlantic relationship, and working in close cooperation with our allies’.

The airbase is owned by the Military of Defence but used by the USAF, and is currently expanding to house some 2,000 US personnel and their families. Pictured: A U-2 jet on April 16

The airbase is owned by the Military of Defence but used by the USAF, and is currently expanding to house some 2,000 US personnel and their families. Pictured: A U-2 jet on April 16

The unexplained U-2 movement from Fairford comes as Putin yesterday signalled that Russia will begin pulling back excess troops deployed on the border with Ukraine

The unexplained U-2 movement from Fairford comes as Putin yesterday signalled that Russia will begin pulling back excess troops deployed on the border with Ukraine

Lockheed U-2 aircraft have previously taken part in conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq. Pictured: A plane at RAF Fairford

Lockheed U-2 aircraft have previously taken part in conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq. Pictured: A plane at RAF Fairford

Lockheed U-2 aircraft have previously taken part in conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq. 

They were initially used by the CIA, first flown in 1955 during the Cold War and for top-secret missions over the Soviet Union, China, Vietnam and Cuba. 

They feature a 63ft-long thin fuselage, two high-aspect, un-swept glider-like wings, and a powerful engine which is carefully designed to keep the plane higher than 70,000ft.

The surveillance plane is one of just a few aircraft models that have served the United States Air Force for more than 50 years, with this year marking the 66th anniversary of its first flight.

It can fly for up to 12 hours at 70,000ft – twice the altitude of a commercial plane – reaching speeds of more than 475mph.   

‘Imagined and built by Skunk Works in the early 1950s, the U-2 name has become synonymous with rapid fielding and innovation,’ Aerospace company Lockheed Martin previously explained.  

‘Plus, it boasts an iconic legacy as one of the few planes to operate during the Cold War and remain in operation today thanks to a completely new and redesigned airframe built in the 1980s.

The aircraft were initially used by the CIA, first flown in 1955 during the Cold War and for top-secret missions over the Soviet Union, China, Vietnam and Cuba

The aircraft were initially used by the CIA, first flown in 1955 during the Cold War and for top-secret missions over the Soviet Union, China, Vietnam and Cuba

‘Sixty years after its first flight, the U-2’s incredible technological and operational capabilities are enabling missions from natural disaster support to intelligence gathering.

‘And should the need arise, the team has a pretty good idea about where to take the Dragon Lady next.’

The unexplained U-2 movement from Fairford comes as Putin yesterday signalled that Russia will begin pulling back excess troops deployed on the border with Ukraine.

The announcement is apparently calling an end to a buildup of over 100,000 soldiers on the Russian-Ukrainian border in the last few weeks that had worried the West and Ukraine.

President Zelensky said he ‘welcomed’ Russia’s withdrawal but that Kiev would remain vigilant.

‘The reduction of troops on our border proportionally reduces tension,’ Zelenskiy tweeted. ‘Ukraine is always vigilant, yet welcomes any steps to decrease the military presence & deescalate the situation in Donbass.’  

The withdrawal of forces had come hours after Putin defiantly warned the West not to ‘dare cross the red line’ of interfering with or provoking his troops stationed in Russian territory. 

Elsewhere, Putin this week unveiled Second World War-style fake military vehicles outside Moscow that he uses to fool NATO

Elsewhere, Putin this week unveiled Second World War-style fake military vehicles outside Moscow that he uses to fool NATO 

The helium-filled tanks, fighter jets, missile systems and transport trucks were proudly displayed by the defence ministry ahead of military exercises where the decoys will be deployed to fool enemy drones and satellites

The helium-filled tanks, fighter jets, missile systems and transport trucks were proudly displayed by the defence ministry ahead of military exercises where the decoys will be deployed to fool enemy drones and satellites 

Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu flew over Crimea in a helicopter on Thursday to personally oversee the mock invasion involving thousands of soldiers, paratroopers, gunboats and landing craft. 

‘I consider the goals of the snap check of readiness fulfilled,’ Shoigu said. ‘The troops have shown their defence capability and I decided to complete the drills in the south and western military districts.’ 

But, he stressed Russian was on its guard over NATO activity in eastern Europe. 

Russia would ‘respond appropriately to all changes in the situation near the Russian borders’, he added. 

He said the troops should return to their bases by May 1, but he also ordered keeping the heavy weapons deployed to western Russia as part of the drills for another massive military exercise later this year.   

Elsewhere, Putin this week unveiled Second World War-style fake military vehicles outside Moscow that he uses to fool NATO.

The helium-filled tanks, fighter jets, missile systems and transport trucks were proudly displayed by the defence ministry ahead of military exercises where the decoys will be deployed to fool enemy drones and satellites.

The tactic was famously used by Winston Churchill who created a fictitious base teeming with tanks in the southeast of England before D-Day to dupe the Nazis into thinking that the Allies were planning a second invasion to follow the Normandy landings.  

THE DRAGON LADY’S HISTORY: THE U-2’S SIX DECADES OF SPYING MISSIONS 

The Lockheed U-2, nicknamed Dragon Lady, is a US, single-engine jet operated by the United States Air Force and previously used by the Central Intelligence Agency.

It was initially proposed as an all-weather, intelligence gathering jet by manufacturer Lockheed Corporation in 1953, approved a year later and made its first test flight in 1955.  

Lockheed initially developed the U-2 in secret for important missions during the Cold War, such as locating missile threats from the Soviet Union. 

The U-2 features a 63ft-long thin fuselage, two high-aspect, un-swept glider-like wings, and a powerful engine which is carefully designed to keep the plane higher than 70,000ft.

It can fly for up to 12 hours at 70,000ft – twice the altitude of a commercial plane – reaching speeds of more than 475mph.      

Early models conducted reconnaissance over the Soviet Union, Vietnam, China and Cuba. 

Aircraft manufacturer Skunk Works delivered the first U-2A model in less than a year in 1955. Pictured: A U-2 Dragon Lady on April 16

Aircraft manufacturer Skunk Works delivered the first U-2A model in less than a year in 1955. Pictured: A U-2 Dragon Lady on April 16

During the height of the Cold War in May 1, 1960, a U-2 was shot down in Soviet airspace.

The aircraft was being flown by CIA pilot Francis Gary Powers when it was hit by a Soviet S-75 Dvina missile. 

It crashed in Sverdlovsk and Powers was captured. He was convicted of espionage and jailed before being released in exchange for a captured Soviet spy two years later.

Another U-2 plane, piloted by Major Rudolf Anderson Jr, was lost in a similar way during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962.

More recently, the surveillance planes have been used during the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.   

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