OSAN AIR BASE, South Korea — Usually when one of the black, needle-like U-2 reconnaissance planes comes in from another long mission over Korea, its pilot is greeted by a handful of airmen, including fellow pilots and the crew that will wheel the big plane into a hangar.

But when Maj. Jon Guertin climbed from the cockpit last Sept. 25 after another cramped, tiring, high-altitude U-2 flight, about 70 well-wishers were waiting with applause, compliments and a bottle of champagne.

Guertin, a U-2 pilot for 13½ years, had just completed 2,000 flying hours in the famous aircraft that flies classified intelligence-gathering missions, becoming one of only 16 pilots in Air Force history to hit that mark. Of those pilots, he’s one of only three now on active duty.

“The sun was just setting, so it was kind of a dramatic moment as he came in,” said Maj. Doug Morse, a U-2 pilot and director of operations with the 5th Reconnaissance Squadron here.

Although Guertin is reconnaissance chief with Osan’s 607th Combat Operations Squadron, he flies the U-2 with the 5th Reconnaissance Squadron. His squadron knew he was nearing the 2,000-hour mark and viewed it with pride.

“There was a kind of departure ceremony for me,” Guertin told Stripes. “They had a placard next to the aircraft with a message for me. It was a big deal. It was something that the entire unit could celebrate because it’s so rare, but also because I’ve worked with many of these people for my entire career.”

“When I found out he was approaching 2,000 hours, I actually telephoned our Lockheed representative back at Beale [because] they keep track of the hours that the U-2 pilots have,” Morse said. Beale Air Force Base in California is home of the 9th Reconnaissance Wing and the place where U-2 pilots are trained.

“In our community, 2,000 hours is a lot, whereas in some communities that’s not a lot at all,” Guertin said, comparing U-2 pilots with those who fly fighter planes or other military aircraft.

“The day prior to his flight,” Morse said, “the maintenance chief called at midnight and said ‘Hey, can you guys throw up something on the plane, the congratulations, the stenciling?’”

The U-2 ground crews got hustling, and when Guertin walked out to the aircraft in his yellow space suit and white helmet, he saw their night’s work emblazoned on the black fuselage in three rows of big red letters edged with white:


Maj Jonathan B. Guertin

2000 Flight Hours”

“I didn’t ask the chief to do that, no one asked the chief to do that. But the maintainers, they basically did that on their own and I think that shows their pride, something they did not have to do,” Morse said.

The U-2S is a single-seat, single-engine surveillance and reconnaissance plane that collects multi-sensor photo, infrared, radar and other images, and picks up radio and other transmissions. It can travel nearly 7,000 miles and can climb to more than 70,000 feet, or 14 miles.

Guertin was up around 6 a.m. that Saturday morning, had some eggs and was at work by 7 a.m. He went through the usual series of pre-flight briefings, suited up and took off around 9 a.m.

Some eight hours later, the darkish outline of his U-2 was seen approaching the air base.

Guertin had gone up that Saturday credited with 1,998.5 hours flying U-2s. Saturday’s flight brought him to 2,006.

His wife baked a cake.

“We knew what time he was coming down, so we were all prepared for him and his family came out,” said Morse.

“And then out of the woodwork, it seemed, a lot of the maintainers and contractors that worked with us also came out,” Morse said. “All the pilots here shook his hand and congratulated him. It’s a U-2 tradition.”

An official Air Force fact sheet on the U-2 calls it “the most difficult to fly due to its unusually challenging takeoff and landing characteristics.”

“It’s like wrestling,” Guertin said. “In the airplane there’s no augmentation to flight controls in the U-2, such as electric motors. … There’s no hydraulic assist. It’s all manual, cables or pulleys, much like an airplane of 50 or 60 years ago. So it requires an application of a lot of physical strength to maneuver it.”

And pilots have to endure six to 12 hours in the cockpit.

“There’s no way to get up and move around, there’s no way to shift your weight, blood pooling in your lower extremities. The cabin altitude we operate in is generally about 30,000 feet. So it’s like working at the top of Mount Everest. It just drains you.”

Among the biggest challenges to piloting the U-2 is the last 15 minutes of a flight, when the pilot has to get the plane safely down, Guertin said. Because of its size, shape and other characteristics, the U-2 is deemed a very tough plane to land, needing special help from a fellow U-2 pilot who drives in vehicle behind the plane as it lands and radios landing guidance.

Guertin, of Salem, Ore., graduated in 1984 from the Air Force Academy. Adding his U-2 time to the flying he’s done in other aircraft during a 20-year Air Force career, his hours stand at about 5,000.

“He is regarded as, obviously, a very experienced, high-time U-2 pilot,” said Morse. “When I think of what he’s done … he has contributed to the security not only of the U.S. but of our allies over the last decade, from the Middle East to, certainly, Korea.”

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