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U-2 spy plane soldiers on after nearly 60 years

An Air Force airman drives behind a U-2 Dragon Lady while it lands at an undisclosed location in Southwest Asia in this Nov. 2010 photo. The U-2 needs a chase vehicle to communicate altitude and alignment corrections when landing.

OSAN AIR BASE, South Korea — While high-tech drones and satellites get most of the attention as eyes in the sky, the U.S. military here continues to rely heavily on the U-2 — a Cold War relic that’s hard to fly and lands with help from a car trailing it down the runway.

“I think most people’s reaction is: `Oh, we still fly U-2s?,’ ” said Lt. Col. Deric Kraxberger, commander of the 5th Reconnaissance Squadron, who has flown the bulky birds for about a decade and embraces the challenges they bring.

“The aircraft is built with a very small structural margin of safety,” he said. “It’s fragile. She’s a challenge … a handful. You never get complacent flying the U-2. At altitude, you feel very isolated and very small. Down low, it’s a lot of work. It flies like a truck without power steering … so you’re muscling the aircraft through the air.”

The U-2, nicknamed “The Dragon Lady,” was first put into use in the mid-1950s at the height of the Cold War to spy on the Soviet Union, China and other Communist nations. In 1960, one was shot down over Soviet territory; another was shot down over Cuba in 1962.

Government and military officials have talked for years about putting the U-2 out to pasture, replacing it — in part or entirely — with drones and other more modern surveillance equipment.

However, much like that threadbare but comfortable recliner, officials are having a hard time saying goodbye to the reliable-if-not-flashy aircraft.

In fact, in recent months, some military and government officials have reportedly been arguing publicly and privately that the U-2 might still be the most cost-effective way for the U.S. to gather intelligence from the air compared with the Global Hawk surveillance drone.

In February, for example, The Associated Press reported the Pentagon was, for the first time, considering cutting back its massive drone buildup — in part because of its “pivot” to the Pacific and the ability that many Asian countries, including North Korea, have to shoot them down. Past experience has shown that drones can be used safely only in conditions of absolute aerial dominance such as Afghanistan or Yemen, where potential foes don’t have an effective anti-aircraft capability.

Estimates vary, but some expect the U-2 to still be around for at least another decade.

Satellites are a great way to keep an eye on other countries, Kraxberger said, but they “are pretty much governed by the laws of physics — you know when it’s going to be in a particular location and you have to wait for it.

“If you want something immediately, you don’t have the flexibility to move it around,” he said. “The U-2 is a flexible platform. Because it’s manned and an aircraft, you can put it up when you want, where you want.”

Another U-2 pilot — identified only as a major named George — said the aircraft is a lot more cutting edge than its looks and landings suggest.

“On one hand, the basic structure, handling and landing characteristics of the plane haven’t changed all that much since 1955,” he said. “On the other hand, the U-2’s engine, avionics and communication equipment are all very modern.

“More importantly, the sensors carried by the U-2 are state-of-the-art and continuously upgraded to improve America’s intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities,” he said.

In Afghanistan, the U-2 has been given high marks for its ability to detect where the ground has been disturbed by insurgents burying improvised explosive devices. There are reportedly more than 30 U-2s in operation around the globe.

At Osan Air Base, a group of more than 200 airmen puts the U-2 into the air on an almost daily basis — as they have done since 1976 — keeping an eye on North Korea, monitoring such things as military communications, troop movements and nuclear and missile test preparations.

To be precise, officials here will not confirm exactly where their pilots fly, saying that — like much of what goes on related to the U-2 — is classified.

However, when asked if there was any reason to have U-2s flying missions over an ally like South Korea, Kraxberger said with a smile, “No, absolutely not.”

The Air Force recently provided Stars and Stripes a rare glimpse behind the curtain at some of the super-secret intelligence, reconnaissance and surveillance U-2 operations run out of Osan.

Kraxberger said the vast majority of those involved in the U-2 program here are “maintainers” for the “handful of aircraft” run out of here.

“The aircraft themselves are basically hand-built, individual airplanes and they take a lot of love, a lot of care,” he said.

About an hour prior to a mission, pilots start breathing pure oxygen and work out on elliptical machines to purge nitrogen from their systems.

“Even though the cockpit is somewhat pressurized, we wear a full-pressure suit which is essentially a spacesuit — the same one you’d wear if you were going up in a rocket to the International Space Station,” the commander said.

“You’re always somewhat exposed to decompression sickness, even though you try to purge all the nitrogen out,” Kraxberger said. “There’s always that possibility that you will get the bends.”

As the aircraft leaves the runway, wheel assemblies — known as “pogos” — detach and drop off the wings.

The U-2, capable of flying for up to 12 hours, climbs rapidly and spends much of its time above 63,000 feet, what’s known as “Armstrong’s Line,” he said.

At altitudes sometimes in excess of 70,000 feet — about twice that of commercial flights — U-2 pilots can see the curvature of the earth and the terminator, the dividing line between day and night, he said.

“I have personally experienced a meteor shower, where the meteors were burning out below the aircraft,” the commander said.

Kraxberger explained that the information gathered is relayed to a mission control-like crew of intelligence analysts on the ground which could number “in the hundreds.”

“We have a preplanned route, but we’re flexible enough to alter that if something catches our eye,” Kraxberger said. “That’s part of intelligence gathering – finding out what you don’t know; not necessarily confirming what you do.”

During their long and sometimes tedious flights, U-2 pilots eat from meal tubes and drink frequently to stay hydrated. Sometimes, they listen to music.

“You’re alone and sometimes you’re not talking to people for hours on end, so it’s stimulus to keep you in the game, really,” Kraxberger said.

When the U-2 descends, its high-tech capabilities give way to low-tech — think Orville and Wilbur Wright — landing procedures.

As it crosses the runway threshold, a Pontiac G-8 gives chase at speeds that can exceed 100 mph with another pilot inside who radios when the U-2 is within a foot or two of the tarmac. The U-2 is put into “complete aerodynamic stall,” dropping it to the ground on its remaining wheels laid out in a “bicycle configuration” before it ultimately comes to a stop, resting on one of its wingtips.

The pilot-major identified only as George said that despite the challenges, “I’m personally proud to be part of the program due just as much to its heritage as to the work it’s performing today.”

rabiroff.jon@stripes.com

 

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