Boiling Point

U-2 Pilots Operate at the Edge of Space

Story by Staff Sgt. Kenny Holston


Beale Air Force Base, located in California, is home to the U-2. This aircraft was originally designed to fly high-altitude intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance missions during the Cold War to gather intelligence on opposition forces. Today, the U-2S flies in support of a variety of missions from ground combat to disaster relief. A “mobile” follows behind the aircraft in a chase car to assist the pilot with altitude and position calls. Mobiles are U-2 pilots who assist during taxi, takeoff and landing. While on missions, U-2 pilots often see a natural occurrence called the terminator line. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), it’s a line that separates day and night. It is also referred to as the “grey line” and the “twilight zone.” It is a fuzzy line due to our atmosphere bending sunlight. This “ah ha” moment is a beautiful reminder of how small we are when skimming the edge of space.
(U.S. Air Force Video by Andrew Arthur Breese)

His eyes narrow as he extends his neck to look out the slanted windshield at a grey sky. He grips the steering wheel with one hand in anticipation, as if sitting at the starting line of a drag race.

In the opposite hand, he clutches a radio that suddenly squawks to life. Out of nowhere, an odd-looking aircraft streaks past the windshield of his all white muscle car.

A U2S Dragon Lady pilot assigned to the 9th Reconnaissance Wing looks out the window of a pilot transport truck as he is driven to his aircraft at Beale Air Force Base, Calif., June 15, 2016. The pilot transport process is a team effort involving several Airmen who check and double check the pilot’s equipment and aircraft to ensure everything is functioning correctly. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Kenny Holston/Released)

A U2S Dragon Lady pilot assigned to the 9th Reconnaissance Wing looks out the window of a pilot transport truck as he is driven to his aircraft at Beale Air Force Base, Calif., June 15, 2016. The pilot transport process is a team effort involving several Airmen who check and double check the pilot’s equipment and aircraft to ensure everything is functioning correctly. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Kenny Holston/Released)

He punches the gas.

Bright flashing lights beam from the roof of his car as he launches like a rocket from the edge of the open tarmac reaching nearly 100 mph in mere seconds.

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While this may sound like a scene from the latest installment of the “Fast and Furious” movie series, it’s not.

The driver of the hot rod is Maj. Jack, a U-2 pilot assigned to the 9th Reconnaissance Wing at Beale Air Force Base, California. Jack is pursuing a landing U-2S reconnaissance plane.

A mild, but noticeable, smell of burning rubber is evident as he puts the car through its paces to catch up the inbound plane.

As he races up behind the aircraft, he lifts the radio to his face to communicate with the pilot in the aircraft just above the ground.

“The design of the U-2 makes it a hard aircraft to land,” Jack said.

As the sun begins to set a U2S Dragon Lady aircraft assigned to the 9th Reconnaissance Wing climbs to altitude after launching from Beale Air Force Base,

As the sun begins to set a U2S Dragon Lady aircraft assigned to the 9th Reconnaissance Wing climbs to altitude after launching from Beale Air Force Base, Calif., June 15, 2016. U-2 pilots often operate at altitudes of up to 70,000 feet where the conduct some of the militaries most critical reconnaissance missions. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Kenny Holston/Released)

Most planes have a standard tricycle landing gear configuration, which means the aircraft remains stable and upright when stationary. But the U-2’s landing gear is in a bicycle configuration, one wheel behind the other, making landing and taxiing the plane a balancing act.

Once on the ground, aircrew members attach pogo wheels, which are comparable to training wheels, under each wing so the plane stays balanced as it taxies. Those same wheels are designed to automatically detach and fall onto the runway during takeoff. One of the big reasons the U-2 is designed this way is to save weight allowing it to easily reach extremely high altitudes.

To ensure a safe and accurate landing, Jack operates as a ground-based wingman in a chase car, communicating with the pilot in the cockpit of the plane. Jack lets the pilot know how many feet he is from the ground and which way to direct the aircraft’s rudder.

Moments later, the U-2 touches down and taxies to a stop. It’s another successful landing after descending from 70,000 feet to execute a high-altitude reconnaissance mission.

“There’s not many jobs where you get to drive a race car and fly airplanes all in the same day,” Jack said, grinning.

A U2S Dragon Lady instructor pilot assigned to the 9th Reconnaissance Wing, sits in the cockpit of a U2S and prepares the aircraft for a routine sortie at Beale Air Force Base, California

A U2S Dragon Lady instructor pilot assigned to the 9th Reconnaissance Wing, sits in the cockpit of a U2S and prepares the aircraft for a routine sortie at Beale Air Force Base, California June 14, 2016. The U2 is a high-altitude surveillance and reconnaissance aircraft that contributes key intelligence to U.S. military around the world. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Kenny Holston/Released)

While there are some exciting aspects to being a U-2 pilot, the duty doesn’t come without some serious hazards, like flying at altitudes where the pilot’s blood would boil without his or her full pressure suit.

Earthbound individuals only need be concerned with their blood metaphorically boiling during an argument. For a U-2 pilot, loss of pressure suit integrity makes the possibility of boiling blood a reality on every mission.

Boiling blood is just one of the harsh realities of operating at 65,000 feet, nearly 1.5 times the operating altitude of a commercial airliner, and beyond.

At this altitude, in a medium between space and earth, called the troposphere, is where U-2 pilots go to work providing vital reconnaissance and global vigilance for U.S. combatant commanders.

At the top of the troposphere, the environment is harsh. Temperatures fall well below negative 64 degrees, and the air is extremely thin. These conditions make it a place not suitable for humans without special protective equipment like the pressure suit that U-2 pilots wear.

U-2 pilots don a full pressure suit resembling that of an astronaut before strapping into the seat of their U-2 Dragon Lady aircraft. This iconic yellow suit is what keeps each pilot alive as they climb above Armstrong’s Line.

A U.S. Air Force U2S Dragon Lady pilot assigned to the 9th Reconnaissance Wing goes through his pre-flight routine prior to being transported to the flight line to conduct a routine sortie

A U.S. Air Force U2S Dragon Lady pilot assigned to the 9th Reconnaissance Wing goes through his pre-flight routine prior to being transported to the flight line to conduct a routine sortie at Beale Air Force Base, Calif., June 15, 2016. Due to the high operating altitude and the cockpit’s partial pressurization, equivalent to 28,000 feet pressure altitude, the pilot wears a full pressure suit that delivers the pilot’s oxygen supply and provides emergency protection in case cabin pressure is lost. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Kenny Holston/Released)

“Armstrong’s Line is the altitude that produces an atmospheric pressure so low that liquid will boil; this includes blood,” said Senior Airman Garrett McNeely, a 9th Physiology Support Squadron aerospace physiology technician.

Armstrong’s Line is named after retired Maj. Gen. Harry G. Armstrong. The De Smet, South Dakota, native was the surgeon general of the Air Force and founded the Air Force’s Department of Space Medicine in 1947 at then-Randolph Field, Texas. Armstrong was the first to define the altitude where humans cannot survive in an unpressurized environment. This deathly environment begins at approximately 60,000 to 62,000 feet where the air pressure decreases to the point that water will boil, even at the normal body temperature.

The U-2 pilot’s pressurized suit is comprised of four layers. While each layer serves a different intricate purpose in making the suit function correctly, the important thing is those layers, when combined, achieve the ultimate goal; creating a safe atmosphere for the pilot.

McNeely and his team are responsible for ensuring U-2 pilots understand the full spectrum of physiological effects on the body when an emergency situation occurs while flying at altitude.

A 9th Physiology Support Squadron launch and recovery technician, talks with a U2S pilot while conducting a pre-flight inspection of a full-pressure suit prior to the pilot’s flight

A 9th Physiology Support Squadron launch and recovery technician, talks with a U2S pilot while conducting a pre-flight inspection of a full-pressure suit prior to the pilot’s flight at Beale Air Force Base, Calif., June 15, 2016. PSS launch and recovery technicians are a crucial part of the U2S reconnaissance mission, as they ensure every pilot’s pressure suit is 100 percent operational. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Kenny Holston/Released)

To accomplish this task, McNeely and other aerospace physiology techs put pilots in to an altitude chamber where they are able to simulate different altitudes and subject to aircrews to hypoxia symptoms.

Hypoxia is another form of suffocation. Air pressure is a function of air density; less air pressure means fewer air molecules by volume. Fewer air molecules in the environment means less oxygen for the body to absorb and the pilot’s body and brain need oxygen to function properly. If these symptoms occur while in flight and a pilot doesn’t know what to do it can quickly turn into a very bad day, McNeely continued.

“Pilots have to experience the symptoms firsthand so they know what it feels like if it were to occur in flight,” he said.

Some of the symptoms include fatigue, numbness, dizziness and tingling of extremities, among others.

By knowing what each of these dangerous symptoms feels like, pilots should be able to take action, while in flight to fix them before becoming completely consumed which can result in incapacitation, McNeely explained.

These altitudes, with their inherent dangers, are how far Airmen go in the literal and figurative sense to maintain global vigilance and stay a step ahead of the enemy.

A U2S Dragon Lady pilot assigned to the 9th Reconnaissance Wing is transported to the flight line in his full pressure suit before a routine sortie

A U2S Dragon Lady pilot assigned to the 9th Reconnaissance Wing is transported to the flight line in his full pressure suit before a routine sortie at Beale Air Force Base, California, June 14, 2016. Early models of the reconnaissance aircraft began service in the early 1950s. The modern-day fleet was completed in the 1980’s and is an integral tool used by combatant commanders to gather an array of intelligence. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Kenny Holston/Released)

The old saying “knowledge is power” couldn’t be more relevant when it comes to the core reason for the U-2’s existence. Simply put, the U.S. military wants to know what is going on in certain areas of the world to keep America and its allies knowledgeable and safe.

Assembled by Lockheed Martin in the 1950s, the U-2 was originally used to fly high-altitude intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance missions during the Cold War. But the unique recon plane has evolved over the years.

Suffice to say, this isn’t your granddaddy’s U-2 anymore.

In 1960, Gary Powers, who worked for the Central Intelligence Agency, was shot down in the U-2 while flying a reconnaissance mission over the Soviet Union. In a way, the ordeal put the recon plane on the map, ultimately leading to the aircraft’s progression.

This is where the “S” letter, standing for Spy, gets pulled into the fold. While Powers operated the U-2 in more of a spying capacity for the CIA, in what was then believed to be above Soviet air defenses, the “S” is no longer accurate today when speaking about operations involving the U-2.

“Airmen who pilot the aircraft conduct legal operations over international airspace,” Jack said.

The all black aircraft is 63 feet long with a wingspan of 103 feet. It flies at speeds of more than 400 mph and has a range of 7,000 miles. Pilots are able to conduct 10 to 12 hour missions. Currently, the Air Force has 33 of the airframes, which primarily operate out of Beale AFB.

The aircraft also has the capability to carry 4,000 pounds of equipment, which makes it possible to assemble powerful sensors on the airframe. These sensors allow pilots the ability to capture more in-depth imagery as they conduct reconnaissance and surveillance from different corners of the world.

A U.S. Air Force aircraft maintainer assigned to the 9th Reconnaissance Wing, attaches wheels to the wings of a U2S Dragon Lady aircraft as the pilot of the plane taxis to the hanger

A U.S. Air Force aircraft maintainer assigned to the 9th Reconnaissance Wing, attaches wheels to the wings of a U2S Dragon Lady aircraft as the pilot of the plane taxis to the hanger after returning from a routine sortie at Beale Air Force Base, Calif., June 14, 2016. Both sets of wheels beneath the wings of the U2S are used for stabilization when the plane takes off and taxis. As the aircraft lifts into the air on take off, both sets of wheels detach from the aircraft and are gathered by Airmen who reattach them when the aircraft lands. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Kenny Holston/Released)

In a short period of time, a U-2 pilot flying at 70,000 feet can gather intelligence about a target in Afghanistan for a Marine unit on the ground by using the aircraft’s high-powered sensors.

Once collected, the pilot can transmit the images to an undisclosed location where it is assessed and given to the Marines on the ground, making it possible for them to effectively execute their mission, explained Maj. Jonathan, U-2S pilot assigned to the 9th RW.

The information given to units operating in a contested environment could possibly save the lives of service members and civilians who may be in the area.

“In God we trust, all others we monitor.”

This phrase coined by U-2 pilots unpacks the idea that 24 hours a day, 365 days a year there is a U-2 airborne somewhere in the world, Jonathan explained.

Global vigilance is amongst the highest priorities for top military officials as terror groups continue to wreck havoc in different parts of the world.

A recent CBS News website headline read, “Obama: ISIS is ‘cancer that has grown for too long.’”

So how does the U.S. military stop the spread of said cancer? Many believe an integral piece to the puzzle is reconnaissance. This is part of what has kept the U-2 in commission for so many years.

It’s no secret terrorist groups like the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant continue to bring about uncertainty and surprise in many situations. As the U.S. military continues to battle terrorist groups, like ISIL, it is necessary to have as much intelligence as possible to be successful in these endeavors.

The landing gear on a U2S Dragon Lady aircraft assigned to the 9th Reconnaissance Wing retracts as the plane climbs into the sky

The landing gear on a U2S Dragon Lady aircraft assigned to the 9th Reconnaissance Wing retracts as the plane climbs into the sky above Beale, Air Force Base, Calif., June 15, 2016. The U2S is an asset used by the U.S. Air Force for intelligence collection operations around the globe. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Kenny Holston/Released)

That’s where the U-2S Dragon Lady comes in, explained U-2 pilots assigned to the 9th RW.

The U-2S is used to support strategic, reconnaissance and tactical missions, which are aligned with the contingency operations that U.S. is involved in.

“We are flying in permissive environments for countries who have asked us to be there,” said Jonathan.

This sort of strategic flying allows U-2 pilots to work efficiently and quickly at anytime, anywhere.

“The great thing about high-altitude reconnaissance is that we can cover a huge area in a short period of time,” Jonathan said. “So when we are looking at developing patterns of life and the laydown of an enemy order of battle we are able to do it relatively quickly with the U-2.”

The U-2 program is a unique one with less than 1,000 pilots operating the aircraft during the lifespan of the distinctive program.

Though there are newer unmanned reconnaissance aircraft like the RQ-4 Global Hawk in the Air Force’s arsenal, the U-2 and the pilots who fly her are an integral part of the recon mission as the U.S. military continues to combat the global war on terror and provide allies aid in different parts of the world.

(Editor’s note: Some last names were removed from this article due to safety and security concerns.)

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