<%@LANGUAGE="JAVASCRIPT" CODEPAGE="1252"%> About the Lockheed U-2 Dragonlady

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About the U-2

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The Mission

The U-2 Dragonlady has provided valuable reconnaissance for the United States for almost half a century.  Although known mostly for the Gary Powers incident on May 1, 1960, the aircraft is still a workhorse for America.  The aircraft has changed through the years - it is larger, has undergone engine changes, and many sensor suites have been upgraded.  The one constant throughout the years has been the difficulty in flying and landing, and the demanding physical environment the pilot must survive in.  Alone in the silent upper atmosphere, for hours on end, the pilots of the Dragonlady belong to what they call the "Brotherhood." 


A typical mission for the U-2 pilot begins the day prior with mission planning.  The pilot and the backup who will drive the chase car (called the "Mobile") review the critical aspects of the following days flight.  Due to the length of the mission, a pilot usually monitors his diet - not the time to experiment at the local grease shack.  The pilot and mobile then turn in for an early night.

The day of the mission begins a couple of hours prior to takeoff.  Last minute briefings, a high protein meal (to sustain the pilot for the flight), and a physical are conducted before suit up.  During the physical the pilots pulse, blood pressure, ears, nose and throat are checked and compared to a baseline.  If there is even the slightest problem here the backup pilot assumes the sortie and the primary becomes the mobile.  At this time the suit up begins. 

Due to the bulk of the suit, a special team of technicians from Physiological Support (PSD) dress the pilot and conduct last minute checks on the suit.  No later than one hour prior to takeoff the pilot must be closed up in the pressure suit and breathe 100% oxygen.  This pre-breathing is necessary to purge nitrogen out of the blood in an attempt to prevent the bends due to high cabin altitude in the aircraft (typically around 30,000'). 

During the suit-up, the mobile ventures out to the aircraft to begin the preflight. The pilot is unable to accomplish the basic walk-around in the pressure suit, so this and the cockpit setup is done by the mobile.  The pilot is transported out to the aircraft during this time.  Once at the aircraft, the PSD technicians strap the pilot into the cockpit.  The main problem during this process is overheating in the pressure suit, especially in a hot desert climate.  Once the pilot is strapped in a PSD supervisor runs a checklist for a last chance check of the suit and integration.  At this time the pilot takes a few minutes to look over the cockpit, making sure everything is in order.  At the sign of "thumbs up" the external cooling is removed from the seat and the mobile closes the canopy, locking the pilot in for around nine hours.  It is tradition that before closing the hatch, the mobile shakes the pilots hand.

A Mustang used as a mobile in Hawaii.  Life is rough!

The mobile now jogs over to the chase car (currently a Chevy Camaro) and checks in with the pilot.  The engine is started, a few last checks are accomplished, and the taxi begins.  The U-2 is a difficult aircraft to taxi.  In no wind conditions, the turn radius is 189'.  Like any tail dragger, turning with the wind significantly increases this distance.  Further complicating the taxi is the lack of visibility from the cockpit of the outrigger wheels on the wings, called pogos.  The mobile is vigilant making sure the taxi is safe, and no airport lighting is hit.

View of the Sierra from Nevada


Once the pilot is finally at the runway, the fun begins.  The power is run-up, but not to 100% or the friction of the tires will be overcome and the aircraft will start skidding.  A mid-power engine check is accomplished, the brakes are released and the power put to full.  As the wings gain lift, the "pogos" or outrigger wheels fall away, and the U-2 leaps skybound.  There is nothing like the rush of power and the speed of climb as the U-2 begins the mission.  The average length is 9 hours. 

View Takeoff Video (Caution, Large File)

Self-portrait at altitude in the U-2

 Culminating Event

After sitting almost motionless at the edge of the atmosphere for 9 hours, the real challenge begins.  Almost all of the drag devices of the aircraft are deployed at altitude (to include the gear) for the descent.  The U-2, with its long wings and inline bicycle type gear is extremely difficult to land.  It has very poor crosswind performance and must land from a full aerodynamic stall at approximately 2' in the air, with no drift and no crab (yaw).  The mobile waits near the end of the runway, listening for the first communications from the pilot.  After a radio check in, the two are mated, similar to a formation flight, but with one member in a car.  As the aircraft arrives on final and nears the runway, the mobile begins the high speed chase.  At 10' a countdown begins until landing.  In addition to altitude, the mobile may give corrections such as "left or right rudder" to correct crab.  A typical sequence would be "10..9..8..7..6..5..4..3..2..2..2..2...." ending with the landing.  The landing looks benign from the outside, but is actually very violent in the cockpit.  As the aircraft slows, the wings lose lift and eventually one wing falls to the runway on a titanium wingtip skid.  A "pogo crew" reinstalls the pogo wheels and the taxi begins to the ramp.  Due to the difficult taxi, the sortie truly doesn't end until the engine is shut down and the pilot has two feet firmly on the ground.

View Landing Video (Caution, Large File)