55 years of the U-2 Dragon Lady: the evolution of training

  • Published
  • By Senior Airman Chuck Broadway
  • 9th Reconnaissance Wing Public Affairs
For the past 55 years U-2 Dragon Lady crews have soared high above the earth collecting intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance information to aid in the fight against enemy forces. Throughout the years, even with the advances in technology, the mission remained the same.

Over time, several changes in the aircraft and protective equipment have evolved to help the U-2 and its pilots better perform their mission. Training to become a U-2 pilot has also evolved from "learn on the fly" to a detailed training course requiring approximately nine months to complete.

In the late 1950s, when the first U-2 pilot trainees were becoming familiar with the aircraft, there were no instructors, no two-seater trainer aircraft, no ejection seats, no full pressure suits, no full-scale base at which to train and no technical manuals or history for reference.

In 1957, there was simply a dried up lake in Nevada called Groom Lake with a bare-bones training ground the pilots referred to as "The Ranch".

The U-2 had no operational testing done by the Air Force before its pilots graced the cockpit. The pilots tested the aircraft while learning its movements and capabilities. The shiny, silver, short-nosed structure far differed from the flat, black, long-nosed platform of today. Pilots also wore a silver, skin-tight partial pressure suit to protect them at high altitudes, which was also new to the Air Force.

The U-2 was a low-budget aircraft even for the 1950s, said retired Lt. Col. Tony Bevacqua, one of the first U-2 pilots. The plane wasn't given the best instruments or equipment available at the time, and it wasn't until later in the program that the cockpit was upgraded to give U-2 pilots what they need to perform the mission as easily as possible.

The aircraft was flown to Groom Lake in pieces and then assembled and flown by a Lockheed test pilot. Upon the Lockheed pilot's approval of the assembly, the aircraft was handed over to the Air Force and training began.

Colonel Bevacqua recalled his time at Groom Lake and how he was completely focused on learning a brand new style of flying.

"There wasn't anything to do except fly and get the training," Colonel Bevacqua said. "It was pretty boring really, unless we were learning the new system."

The beginning of the U-2's history was highly classified. Pilots were interviewed by members of the Central Intelligence Agency and when accepted were off on an adventure they knew little to nothing about.

"All I knew was that I was going to Connecticut for a pressure suit fitting and then to Wright-Patterson (Air Force Base, Ohio,) for altitude chamber training and a further fitting," Colonel Bevacqua said. "I was told I would be flying to March AFB (Calif.,) and meet a guy there who would take me the rest of the way."

Upon arrival at Groom Lake, they were thrust into training and performed numerous touch and go flights as they adjusted to the handling characteristics of the U-2. Within a week of training, pilots performed their first high-flights in the partial pressure suit.

"The partial suit was fitted and acted like a girdle," Colonel Bevacqua said. "It was skin tight throughout and when you lost pressurization, the external hoses would enlarge and tighten the suit more. It did its job by preventing your blood from boiling, but it was very uncomfortable."

The first pilots arrived at Groom Lake and completed their entire training in less than three weeks. They flew to Laughlin Air Force Base, Texas where they became operational pilots and instructor pilots for the second class.

"Everything back then was pushing the envelope to get somewhere where human beings weren't designed to go," said Maj. Mark Ferstl, a U-2 student pilot at the 1st Reconnaissance Squadron. "They didn't have a lot to go on, but in some ways the lack of knowledge and experience may have been a motivator."

In today's training, pilots are interviewed first, which includes several interview flights at low altitude to see how a pilot handles the aircraft. Once accepted into the program, they fly T-38 Talons for three months and learn survival skills before even sitting in a U-2 cockpit again.

Part of their survival training includes several training sessions in the high-altitude flight chamber at the 9th Physiological Support Squadron.
Major Ferstl said it's a big confidence booster once the training is complete and pilots are comfortable in the suit.

"The full pressure suit has not failed anybody at altitude," he said. "The people at suit training want to prove to you that the suit is going to save your life, and they do that. They take you up to altitude in the chamber, and it's a great confidence builder."

Major Ferstl said it was hard to imagine how the first pilots went through training not knowing if the pressure suit was going to save them.

"Knowing what I know now, I probably wouldn't fly in a partial pressure suit," he said. "Those guys were the pioneers, pushing the envelope, and they've forged the way for us."

Once they are comfortable in the pressure suit and qualified to fly the T-38, pilots then fly two-seater U-2s at low altitudes with an instructor pilot. By flying in two-seater aircraft, pilots learn the characteristics of the U-2, and instructors can test them on different aspects of flight.

"The instructors are phenomenal," Major Ferstl said. "We've got the best instructor pilots and they are very understanding and professional. They've all been where we are and are amazing pilots and instructors."

Once their low sortie flights are completed, student pilots will take off on a high flight with an instructor. Once the instructors deem them qualified, students will perform solo flights at low altitudes, then complete several solo high flights before graduating the program. Student pilots will fly 20 U-2 sorties before graduating the program and deploying for the first time.

"The training does a great job giving you a well-rounded experience," Major Ferstl said. "I fully expect what I learned here will get me through my first few deployments, but you can always learn more."

The U-2 training program has evolved during the past five decades. State-of-the-art equipment is now available to student pilots and more time is spent on their training to ensure they're capable of piloting such a unique aircraft.

When the program first started, its secrecy and unfamiliarity provided challenges to pilots like Colonel Bevacqua who paved the way for today's newest U-2 pilots.

With the advancements in technology and a full history book to learn from, today's U-2 pilots, such as Major Ferstl, are trained by experienced instructors, on the best available equipment, to become more capable of delivering high-altitude intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance data.