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U-2s challenge pilots’ endurance in the air

OSAN AIR BASE, South Korea — The once-secret U-2 reconnaissance plane is known for its high-value role in some of the Cold War’s most critical events. It’s also known as the world’s toughest plane to pilot.

Capt. Michael Opresko, 29, knows first-hand how challenging it is to fly and land the U-2 Dragon Lady, and how punishing it can be on the body. U-2 pilots fly alone for eight to 12 hours, and so high they have to wear a space suit.

“Going up to 30,000 feet cabin pressure is like going from sea level to Everest each day,” said Opresko.

And if above a certain altitude they were to lose cabin pressure or eject, without the suit their blood, saliva and other body fluids would instantly boil. Literally.

“Not a good thing,” Opresko said.

A typical U-2 flight leaves the pilot drained, stiff, and because they breathe 100 percent oxygen during the flight, dehydrated.

“You’re completely wiped, you’re ready to go to bed, you’re hungry, you know, you feel like you’ve just worked out like none other,” Opresko said. “You don’t have the body aches and pains, but you just feel wiped. You’re done.”

The U-2’s flight controls have no hydraulics, so unless they’re flying on automatic pilot, working the aircraft takes lots of arm strength. Especially at lower altitudes.

“It’s all cables and pulleys with not too much mechanical advantage, so it does require a lot of arm strength, especially down low when you’re flying in the thicker atmosphere where the aircraft doesn’t respond as well,” Opresko said. “Occasionally we have had emergencies where some of those systems fail, and it does take all the strength that a person has to fly it properly.

“And in those situations, the medical responders are pulling them out of the aircraft. They find the pilot hunched over — can’t even unwrap their arms ‘cause the muscles are completely fatigued and now just stuck in this position.”

The Dragon Lady is also notoriously tricky to land. It’s like an oversized glider with a 150-foot wingspan and bicycle-style landing gear, and it takes great skill to keep the plane balanced on landing and get it to a safe stop, Opresko said.

The plane’s very long nose limits what the pilot can see out ahead, and the space helmet limits what can be seen at the sides.

So, normally, a qualified U-2 pilot in a high-speed car — at Osan it’s a Camaro — has to follow the plane and radio guidance to the pilot to help him set it down safely.

And there’s the matter of in-flight bathroom breaks — or not. The pilots have a device to wear for urinating, but defecating is “absolutely” out.

“We’d ruin the suit,” Opresko said. “So for that reason, we eat a high-protein, low-residue diet.”

As for the device, Opresko said it works well, usually. “We look cool and all that, but just know that we come out covered in our own sweat and urine quite often,” he said, laughing. “It’s still worth it though.”


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