HomeNewsArticle Display

Dancing with a dragon: A pilot’s tale

A U-2 Dragon Lady reconnaissance aircraft comes in for a landing at an undisclosed location in Southwest Asia, Dec. 22, 2015. Upon landing, pilots must balance the U-2’s unsupported 105-foot wingspan while bringing the aircraft to a halt.

A U-2S reconnaissance aircraft comes in for a landing at an undisclosed location in Southwest Asia, Dec. 22, 2015. Upon landing, pilots must balance the aircraft’s unsupported 105-foot wingspan while bringing the aircraft to a halt. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Kentavist P. Brackin)

Staff Sgt. Sigfred, Dragon Aircraft Unit maintainer for the U-2 Dragon Lady reconnaissance aircraft, removes aircraft blocks prior to the departure of a U-2 at an undisclosed location in Southwest Asia, Dec. 10, 2015. Despite the variety of manned and unmanned aircraft that have been proposed to take over the U-2’s ISR role in the 60 years since its activation, it still remains a primary reconnaissance aircraft for the Air Force. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Kentavist P. Brackin/released)

Staff Sgt. Sigfred, a U-2S reconnaissance aircraft maintainer, removes aircraft blocks prior to the departure of a U-2S at an undisclosed location in Southwest Asia, Dec. 10, 2015. Despite the variety of manned and unmanned aircraft that have been proposed to take over the aircraft’s intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance role in the 60 years since its activation, it still remains a primary reconnaissance aircraft for the Air Force. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Kentavist P. Brackin)

A mobile chase car driver pursues a U-2 Dragon Lady reconnaissance aircraft during its landing at an undisclosed location in Southwest Asia, Dec. 7, 2015. Mobile chase car drivers act as a second pair of eyes and ears for U-2 pilots during their launch and landings, radioing adjustments to the aircraft to make up for the pilot’s limited sight of the runway. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Kentavist P. Brackin/released)

A mobile chase car driver pursues a U-2S reconnaissance aircraft during its landing at an undisclosed location in Southwest Asia, Dec. 7, 2015. Mobile chase car drivers act as a second pair of eyes and ears for U-2S pilots during their launch and landings, radioing adjustments to the aircraft to make up for the pilot’s limited sight of the runway. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Kentavist P. Brackin)

SOUTHWEST ASIA (AFNS) -- Gliding more than 13 miles above the Earth’s surface, the U-2S reconnaissance aircraft, also nicknamed Dragon Lady, flies unnoticed and silent to all but a select few.

The U-2S is a single-seat, single-engine, high-altitude, reconnaissance, and surveillance aircraft capable of providing signals, imagery, electronic measurements, and signature intelligence to U.S. and coalition forces.

Despite the variety of manned and unmanned aircraft that have been proposed to take over the U-2S ISR role in the 60 years since its activation, it still remains a primary reconnaissance aircraft for the Air Force because of the men and women at the controls.

The preflight preparations for a U-2S pilot starts the night before with dinner and a good night’s rest.

“You don’t want go out and try something for the first time the night before a 10-hour sortie and not know how your body will react to it,” said Capt. Jacob, a 99th Expeditionary Reconnaissance Squadron U-2S pilot. “I usually wake up an hour before I have to be at the squadron to get a good a breakfast with lots of protein to fill up my stomach.”

Once at the squadron, pilots begin the process of suiting up before stepping out to fly what is known as the most difficult aircraft to land in the Air Force.

“Some days you’ll go up and she’ll be perfectly well-behaved and she’ll be just like dancing with a lady,” Jacob said. “It’s going to be smooth and everything just goes great and it’s the best flight of your life, but then there are those days when (she’s) not a lady, she is a dragon, and you’re just trying to hold on while she tries to kill you.

“A lot of it has to do with visibility,” he said.

Normally, when a pilot lands an aircraft they have what’s referred to as a “ground rush” in their peripheral vision. As they’re flying along, the ground and runway comes into their peripheral vision, signaling when they should prepare to land.

For U-2S pilots, their peripheral vision is severely limited by the full-pressure suit helmets worn during their flights. The helmet’s vision impairment is similar to a diving mask, not allowing for spotting objects to the left, right, up or down -- only straight ahead.

“You can tell you’re on the runway, but you can’t tell how high off the runway you are and that’s where the mobile comes in,” Jacob said.

Mobile chase car drivers act as a second pair of eyes and ears for U-2 pilots during their launch and landings, making up for the pilot’s limited movement and vision. Once an aircraft nears the runway, chase cars speed off in pursuit close behind it, radioing adjustments to pilot until they are inches from the ground.

“Ultimately, what we’re doing is helping the pilot land safely, which protects not only them, but the assets as well,” said Capt. Stephen, a 99th ERS operations officer and U-2S pilot. “It’s a big balance of observing what the pilot is doing and providing real-time corrections so they can land as well as they possibly can and as safe as they possibly can.”

Upon landing, pilots attempt to balance the aircraft’s 105-foot wingspan while slowing it down to a halt.

It can be difficult because the aircraft’s landing gear set is similar to a bicycle’s, with no support for its long wings, while most planes have three sets of landing gear, according to Jacob.

At any one time there are hundreds of people supporting U-2S operations, from the maintainers on the ground to the intelligence personnel who analyze the information, which is gathered and disseminated by U-2S pilots during combat sorties, Stephen said.

U-2S pilots also clarified what is the most difficult challenge they face when piloting the aircraft.

“Most people think landing the U-2 is the hardest part,” Jacob said. “It might physically be the hardest part, but the hardest part overall is really being mentally ready to fly it.”

The average length of a U-2S pilot’s combat sortie is approximately 10 hours, thousands of feet above the Earth, and with pilots unable to move more than an inch up or down in their seat, without hitting their head on the canopy.

The uncomfortable solo flights are something potential U-2S pilots must mentally be ready to encounter, Jacob said.

“You really have to ask yourself if you’re comfortable being uncomfortable,” he said. “My advice for anyone considering becoming a U-2 pilot would be to apply and do the interview, or put yourself in a chair, stick that chair in a broom closet and turn off the lights and sit there for a couple hours. If you’re still happy, then apply.”

Despite flying solo for up to 10 hours and attempting to land, tired and hungry with limited visibility, Jacob and other pilots of the 99th ERS said they wouldn’t trade the experience for anything in the world.

“I’ve got the coolest job in the Air Force. Other people may say they have coolest job, but those people are lying,” Jacob said. “The days I’m flying, I’m the highest person on Earth other than the International Space Station, and I can see the curvature of the Earth. The days I’m not, I get to drive a chase car down the runway with no speed limit. Who has a better job than that?”

(Editor’s note: Last names were removed due to security and operational concerns.)

Engage

Facebook Twitter
RT @AETCommand: #BehindTheScenes - Command Chief Master Sergeant training course students at @HQAirUniversity learn about leadership, commu…
RT @thejointstaff: Watch today's change of responsibility ceremony, hosted by #GenMilley, live @ 10 a.m. EST on Twitter. @SEAC_Troxell wil…
RT @HQ_AFMC: 📽️We're back to the @Afresearchlab for Day 10 of #24DaysAFMC. This year they tested a state-of-the-art rocket #engine preburne…
RT @16AF_AFCYBER: The holiday season is a prime time for online thieves to take advantage of weaknesses in shoppers' devices to extract per…
RT @USAFCENT: ALWAYS READY | Members of the 823d Expeditionary Base Defense Squadron test their combat life-saving skills during a medical…
Nearly 10,000 participants from around the world took part in the 2019 Military World Games in Wuhan, China. And… https://t.co/CRYacyFtEJ
Ever heard of the rule of 0-0-1-3? No. Well it means to have zero alcohol if you're underage, zero drinks if you're… https://t.co/7bNRnhYuWS
RT @HQ_AFMC: #Readiness was on display by our @AFResearchLab teams during a live-virtual-constructive training simulation, enabling #Airmen
RT @AFWERX: We can't wait for 2020: The @USAirForce Advanced Manufacturing Olympics is slated for July 8-9 in Salt Lake City & will bring t…
RT @AirNatlGuard: “The Silver Flag training sites provide our Airmen with real-world scenarios to reinforce our Air Force Specialty Code sk…
RT @US_TRANSCOM: Watch a @usairforce KC-10A refuel, and be refueled during same mission in support of @CJTFOIR. #Togetherwdeliver #NKAWTG #…
RT @AETCommand: Transforming the way we learn with technology is one of our key priorities here in the First Command! Check out the photos…
RT @AirNatlGuard: This week, @ChiefNGB visited the @PRNationalGuard at Muñiz Air National Guard Base to meet with senior leaders and discus…
RT @GenDaveGoldfein: YOU are the most important reason for our mission success. Take care of each other & preserve the connections & commun…
RT @AirmanMagazine: When it comes to acquisitions, the @usairforce has the need for speed. Equipping Airmen with the best technology start…
RT @GenDaveGoldfein: A distinct privilege to help unveil the F-117 exhibit, establishing this remarkable aircraft in its rightful place in…
RT @AirNatlGuard: “For me personally, the CAP and Air Guard go hand in hand. When I look back at any state active duty or state support we…