Sensor shop ensures successful U-2 missions

  • Published
  • By Master Sgt. Tim Helton
  • 9th Reconnaissance Wing Public Affairs
For most people, taking a photo is as simple as pointing and shooting. However, for a U-2 pilot flying at more than 70,000 feet, taking a picture requires a high-tech camera and a dedicated organization to ensure it works properly.

It is the primary job of the 9th Maintenance Squadron avionics sensor shop here to maintain the U-2's aerial photography system, which takes high-resolution, stereographic and monographic high-altitude wet film photographs. The heart of the system is the optical bar camera.

Developed more than 30 years ago, the OBC was originally designed for use on the SR-71 Blackbird and was modified for continued use on the U-2. The camera, which replaced other wet film cameras, had to be slowed down to accommodate the U-2.

"When the OBC was on the SR-71 it took a frame about every 1.7 seconds, but for the U-2 it was slowed down to one frame every 6.8 seconds," said Master Sgt. Charles Davis, 9th MXS OBC sensor shop superintendent. "This had to be done because the difference in the cruising speeds of the aircraft could cause the imagery to blur if the timing and speed of the camera was wrong."

The primary customer of OBC products, the 9th Intelligence Squadron commander, said the OBC sensor shop is key to ensuring mission accomplishment.

"The OBC sensor shop is the essential first step in the process of collecting imagery on film," said Lt. Col. Barry Leister, 9th IS commander. "Without quality sensors, we cannot produce the high-resolution imagery needed to make vital intelligence assessments. Accurate assessments of enemy strength and location can spell the difference between life and death for our U.S. and coalition forces in the battle space."

Used at all levels of command, OBC images are instrumental in intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance operations as well as assessing battle damage for in-theater commanders and higher headquarters.

"The OBC, while not the quickest, provides the clearest, most in depth, and highest resolution imagery available from any sensor that can be deployed on the U-2 aircraft," said Davis.

But, being able to provide this high-resolution image requires a unique roll of film that weighs nearly 100 pounds and requires at least two people to load.

“Each roll of OBC film is 5 inches wide and 10,500 feet long with each frame of imagery measuring more than 6 feet long," said Davis. "With an entire roll of film, the camera can take about 1,600 frames in one mission. Each frame covers roughly 110 square nautical miles in a panoramic horizon-to-horizon format. Basically, a roll of film can shoot an area the size of Colorado.”

And while most avionic shops have different flightline and back shop maintenance sections, the OBC sensor shop is directly responsible for all facets of the system. This allows for any unforeseen problems to be fixed on the aircraft.

“Doing back shop and flightline maintenance in the same shop is one of the best things about my job," said Airman 1st Class Derek Kirkwood, 9th MXS avionics sensor technician. "Normally in avionics, we are separated into two different shops. That limits a person to seeing only one aspect of the job, but here we get involved in all different areas of OBC maintenance."

This experience comes to fruition during deployments where the OBC sensor shop faces several challenges -- one of which is maintaining the OBC in a temperature- and humidity-controlled work center. It is then required to be thermally stabilized before any mission.

"We must download the camera from the aircraft as safely and quickly as we can so that the camera and film do not heat up too much and risk degrading the imagery," said Davis. "The experience our team gains from seeing all aspects of the process here allows them to ensure mission effectiveness anywhere, anytime."

Through all the different aspects of the job, one thing remains clear for the people working in the OBC sensor shop.

"This aircraft and this sensor have so much history that it’s almost overwhelming to stop and think about the places these cameras have been and the things they must have seen," said Davis. "It’s a great environment to work in with a system that directly affects all facets of a unique mission."