- The Air Force is opening up the selection process for pilots to fly the legendary U-2 spy plane.
- The six-year experience minimum is being discarded, and trainee pilots will be able to pick the U-2 as they would any other plane.
- The program is only experimental right now, however, so the U-2 pilot corps will remain a select group.
The six years of experience and hundreds of hours of flight time needed to become a pilot of the US Air Force’s oldest spy plane are no more, and now trainee pilots will be eligible to take the controls of the venerable Dragon Lady.
The new U-2 First Assignment Companion Trainer, or FACT, program will allow Air Force student pilots to jump directly into the U-2 pipeline and join the 9th Reconnaissance Wing.
“Our focus is modernising and sustaining the U-2 well into the future to meet the needs of our nation at the speed of relevance,” Air Force Col. Andy Clark, commander of the 9th Reconnaissance Wing, said in a release.
The new program is meant to create “a new reconnaissance career path for young, highly qualified aviators eager to shape the next generation of [reconnaissance] warfighting capabilities,” Clark said. The first selection will be among fall 2018 undergraduate training pilots with the next round coming in about six months.
The change comes as the Air Force seeks to modernise the U-2 airframe and mission, as well as its pilot-acquisition and development process.
Once selected, pilots in the FACT program will go the T-38 pilot instructor training course at Joint Base San Antonio-Randolph in Texas before a permanent change-of-station to Beale Air Force Base in California, where the U-2s are based.
The selectee will then be a T-38 instructor pilot for the next two years, and once they have the requisite experience, they will undergo the standard two-week U-2 pilot interview process.
If hired, they will then start Basic Qualification Training.
“The well-established path to the U-2 has proven effective for over 60 years,” Lt. Col. Carl Maymi, commander of the 1st Reconnaissance Squadron, said in a release.
“However, we need access to young, talented officers earlier in their careers. I believe we can do this while still maintaining the integrity of our selection process through the U-2 FACT program.”
‘An art, not a science’
The U-2 entered service during the Eisenhower administration, carrying out covert missions high above enemy territory during the height of the Cold War. The aircraft have been overhauled and the missions have changed in the decades since, but the Dragon Lady remains one of the most unique and challenging aircraft US pilots can fly.
Today’s U-2s are larger than the original versions and are made of slightly lighter material, as less weight translates into more altitude – about one extra foot for each pound shed, according to Wall Street Journal reporter Michael Phillips, who ventured up in a U-2 earlier this year, accompanied by Jethro, one of the few pilots who’ve qualified to fly it.
Every six years, each U-2 is totally overhauled by Lockheed Martin, which takes the plane completely apart and goes through “every wire, every connector, every panel,” Jethro told Phillips.
“They will X-ray it … make sure there’s no cracks, replace anything that’s broken, put it back together, new coat of paint, and it looks like a brand-new aeroplane again, and it flies like a brand-new aeroplane again,” Jethro added.
The long, narrow wings allow the U-2 to quickly lift heavy payloads of cameras and sensors to high altitudes and stay there for extended periods. It’s capable of gathering an arrary of imagery, including multi-spectral electro-optic, infrared, and synthetic aperture radar products that can be stored aboard or transmitted to the ground.
Some parts of the preparation process are still low-tech, however.
The U-2 has a central fuel tank fed by tanks in each wing. Crews will fill up the wing tanks and then look to see which way the aircraft leans. They they transfer fuel from one side to the other until it balances out.
“So it’s really kind of an art, not a science,” Jethro said.
U-2 pilots work in two-man crews, but the pilots go up in the aircraft alone. Their pre-flight preparations begin with donning a full-pressure suit, like those worn by astronauts, that regulates the pilot’s pressure and temperature.
“If the cockpit lost pressure at 70,000 feet” – the usual cruising altitude – “and I weren’t wearing a space suit, my blood would boil,” Phillips said.
Once suited, pilots head to the aircraft, accompanied by a crew member carrying their oxygen supply.
Pilots give the U-2 a traditional pat on the nose, shake hands with each flight crew member, and clamber into the cockpit, where a team of technicians hooks them up to an array of regulators and sensors.
“I’ve got crew chiefs. I’ve got electricians. I’ve got different civilians for each of the sensors … so there may be 40 people around the aircraft, who are all there just to get you in the air,” Jethro said. “We don’t call it a takeoff. We call it a launch.”
The U-2’s 103-foot wingspan and broad turning radius make it hard to manoeuvre, and the wings, laden with fuel, are supported by temporary wheels called “pogos.”
To help deal with those hazards, the other member of the two-man pilot team trails behind the U-2 at the wheel of a muscle car –like a Pontiac GTO or Tesla Model S – that can keep up with the U-2.
Other U-2 pilots who aren’t flying may be in Beale’s control tower, overseeing their fellow pilots’ missions.
During takeoff, the pilot wrestles with the plane as it gets off the ground.
“As soon as you throw the power up, you’re pushing 18,000 pounds of thrust out of the backend. You have those big, long wings, and it just wants to accelerate so fast,” said one U-2 pilot, identified only as Nova. “You gotta pull it up to about 40 degrees nose high just to keep the aeroplane within limits, and that is just one of the coolest feelings ever.”
“When you get a chance to look and just see the earth just falling away behind you so quickly, it’s awesome,” he added.
The temporary wheels that hold up the wings during takeoff drop away as the plane leaves the ground.
The U-2 ascends to about 70,000 feet for a typical mission. Up there, the curvature of the earth allows pilots to see 270 nautical miles in each direction – a field of vision of about 500 miles. It can map all of Iraq in a single mission.
On the edge of space, the cockpit is silent except for the raspy hiss of the breathing system, which sucks pure oxygen into the pilot’s helmet.
“The air pressure inside the cockpit is the equivalent to standing on top of Mount Everest,” Phillips said.
“Without the oxygen I’d be gasping for breath, and I’d be in danger of getting the bends,” he added, referring to an illness that occurs when dissolved gases enter the bloodstream as the body experiences changes in pressure.
“A lot of times when we get up to altitude, you’ll be able to look down and see the airliners,” Jethro, the pilot, said during the flight.
“And you can see that very gentle curve of the earth from here,” Phillips added, “It’s an extraordinary view.”
“When you get up there and you think, like, ‘What makes these people different from these people?’ And you just don’t see it from up there,” Nova, the other pilot, said. “It’s one world. There’s one planet.”
‘You’re in a small club’
The features that make the U-2 an exceptional high-altitude reconnaissance aircraft make it extremely difficult to land. Pilots have to perform a kind of controlled crash to bring the plane back to earth.
The two sets of wheels built into the plane are set up like bicycle wheels, with one set under the nose and the other under the tail. The massive wings, now relieved of their fuel, make the aircraft hard to control as it comes in.
The cars that saw the plane off zip in as it lands, their drivers giving the pilots a foot-by-foot countdown and alerting them to any problems. The cars can hit 140 mph while chasing an incoming U-2.
Once the plane has slowed down enough, one of the wings droops to the ground. Titanium skid plates on the bottoms of both wings help bring the plane to a full stop, at which point the temporary wheels are reattached. The plane then taxis off the runway.
Back on earth, technicians begin developing the photographs taken during the flight.
A flight can produce 10,500 feet of film, stored on a 250-pound spool, according to Phillips.
The U-2’s wet-film camera, which looks straight down and at angles from the side of the plane, produces photos that are clearer than digital images, which are analysed with loupes or microscope-like optics that zoom in on the features captured on the film.
It’s an old-fashioned approach to aerial reconnaissance, Phillips noted. “But it works, and that’s why it’s still around,” one of the airmen overseeing the film-development process added.
After the first two undergraduate pilot training students are picked and enter the FACT program, the assignment process “will be assessed to determine the sustainability of this experimental pilot pipeline,” the Air Force said in its announcement.
For the time being, the Dragon Lady’s pilot corps will be a rare breed.
“A thousand pilots, [there are] way more Super Bowl rings out there. You’re in a small club,” Lt. Col. Matt Nussbaum, 99th Reconnaissance Squadron commander, told Phillips.
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