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Released: January 23, 1998

U-2s provide unique challenges, rewards

by Capt. Donna Nicholas
4404th Wing (Provisional) Public Affairs

ARABIAN GULF REGION – The flight is characterized as "fighting with the dragon" or "dancing with the lady," depending on how well or difficult it went. Either way, flying the U-2 Dragon Lady is a challenge only about 1,000 Air Force pilots have ever experienced.

As the only manned, high-altitude reconnaissance aircraft in the Air Force, U-2s provide continuous day or night, high-altitude, all-weather surveillance in direct support of U.S. and allied ground and air forces.

Although aircraft design has remained about the same since they first deployed in 1955, state-of-the-art technology is used to complete today’s mission. The data it gathers is used to develop critical intelligence for decision makers through all phases of conflict, including peacetime indications and warnings, international crises, low-intensity conflict, and large scale hostilities. U-2s are also used to gather information during natural disasters and by NASA for upper atmospheric air sampling.

"It is one of the most interesting things about the aircraft," said Capt. Dean Neeley, U-2 pilot. "Although our basic mission hasn't changed in 40 years, we use the most up-to-date, leading-edge technology for the reconnaissance system."

This state-of-the art technology enables sensors called the Advanced Synthetic Aperture Radar System and the Senior Year Electro-Optical Reconnaissance System to take electronic images and transmit them to a ground station for evaluation. Some of this information gathering is done in near-real time while the aircraft is still airborne. 

More conventional photographic products provide broad area coverage. After landing, the pictures are developed for traditional print and review.

"This is an extremely important capability," explained Tom Watson, field engineer for the data link. "We can actually take action based on what we are seeing when it is transmitted in real-time. 
That is a quantum leap from the process used four decades ago."

While the reconnaissance technology improved, the basic technique for flying the single-seat, single-engine, glider-like aircraft has not changed; and remains one of the most complicated weapons systems to maneuver. The Air Force selects its most experienced and senior pilots for the program.

"Typically, most of the pilots flying in the U-2 have two other flying assignments under their belt. They will have been flying for at least six or seven years before they meet the minimum requirements to apply for the job and come from a wide variety of backgrounds ranging from fighters, to bombers, to cargo jets," Neeley said.

There is good reason for such stringent prerequisites, since the Dragon Lady is demanding, both mentally and physically. 

Capable of exceeding an altitude of 70,000 feet, pilots must wear a full-pressure suit, go through a mini-physical and begin breathing 100 percent oxygen at least one hour before takeoff.

"Breathing pure oxygen removes most of the nitrogen from the body. This helps prevent decompression sickness that would otherwise be incapacitating at such high altitudes," explained Staff Sgt. Brian Brelje, physiological support division supervisor. 

The aerospace physiology technicians are with the pilot from preflight check-in to take-off, and again after landing, for debrief, ensuring the space suit's many inlet and outlet valves and support systems are functioning properly. These specialists have to test and retest, check and recheck all the equipment to make sure the suit is going to work properly once the pilots get into the low pressure environment experienced at high altitude.

"The space suit is the only thing protecting us from cabin pressurization loss. When we are up high, the air is so thin, the pressure is so low ... that the pressure difference would cause your blood and all the fluids inside your body to immediately boil if it weren't for the space suit," Neeley said.

Once the pilot is enclosed in the space suit, or integrated, his primary focus centers on controlling his energy and stress level, saving all he has for flying the mission ahead.

"We go through some different challenges most pilots don't have to deal with in a normal flight suit and a normal cockpit. In the enclosed space suit environment, proper heat exchange becomes essential and the suit's ventilation systems keep the airflow over our body consistent. If we try too many tasks, or overheat, we could get incapacitated real quickly. We make a concentrated effort to keep track of all our energy, trying to stay as relaxed as possible. 

"Considering the intensity of the type and length of missions we fly, we need every ounce of energy to land the airplane, which is the most critical phase of the flight, " Neeley said.

As the pilot is integrating into the space suit, another team of support specialties, from intelligence to maintenance - including contract civilians - prepare the aircraft and its equipment for the mission. 

"The amount of support required to get the entire mission accomplished is pretty incredible. It takes dozens of people. When the pilot comes in, maintenance people have already been at work for hours preparing the airplane and sensors specialists have been preparing whatever equipment we are going to use for that particular mission. So hundreds of man-hours have been accomplished before the pilot ever gets here," Lt. Col. John Petersen, 4402nd Reconnaissance Squadron commander, said.

The physical demands continue throughout the entire flight. Especially since the single most challenging aspect comes during the last minutes of flight - the landing.

Long, wide wings, spanning 104 feet, give the aircraft its glider-like characteristics and create the challenge for landing. In order to minimize aircraft structural weight, the U-2 was designed with a bicycle-like landing gear. 

Pogo outriggers support the wings for taxi and takeoff. Prior to take off, pins holding the pogos to the wings are removed. As the aircraft’s speed increases the wings lift and the pogos drop off just prior to lifting off the runway.

The pilot keeps the wings level upon landing until the aircraft comes to a stop. Then the pogos are reinserted for taxi.

"It is very difficult at first, and it continues to be a challenge every time you do it. It requires a lot more physical movements than most airplanes do. It feels like trying to fly while being strapped in a straight jacket or having one hand tied behind your back," Neeley said.

The landing is actually an aerodynamic stall, which allows the tail end to set down first. The pilot must control steering and keep the wings level by using the yoke, rudder, and spoilers. 

Because the natural tendency for the plane's momentum is to go into the wind, the pilot literally has to wrestle the nose of the aircraft back to center, at times purposely dragging the wing tips, which are protected with titanium skids, explained Petersen. 

While the challenges are many, there are definite rewards in store for the few who get the opportunity to experience this unique aircraft.

"Flying the U-2 is real interesting. Unlike flying down lower in the atmosphere like most airplanes, some of the visual sights you see up there are incredible. In daytime, the sky looks a lot different up there. Above all the haze and everything in the atmosphere, the sky is a lot darker, almost purple. It is really an amazing sight. Every once in a while during a mission, you just have to stop and really take a look around and appreciate what you've got up there.

"Night time is a little different also. The air is so much clearer up there; you can see what seems to be 10 times more stars. They just carpet the sky.

"Most people just want that one special challenge. The challenge of flying in a different environment like the space suit, and still flying a real airplane, high in the atmosphere, and doing an important mission. It is just very rewarding," Neeley said.

(Editor's note: In addition to supporting Operation Southern Watch, U-2s are engaged in operations around the world. Home stationed at Beale AFB, Calif., squadron members constantly deploy around the world, averaging about 160 days away from home annually. Operating from Southwest Asia, South Korea, France and Cyprus, the U-2 provides reconnaissance coverage across much of the globe.) 

Air Combat Command Public Affairs, United States Air Force, ACC/PAI