ASIA (Jan. 5, 2016) —
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
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
“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
“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