Editor’s Note: 60 years ago today, a CIA-operated Lockheed U-2 spy plane flown by Captain Francis Gary Powers was shot down over the Sverdlovsk Oblast region of central Russia, then the U.S.S.R. Powers was attempting to fly all the way across the vast Soviet Union from Pakistan to Norway, photographing ICBM missile sites and space-vehicle launch facilities along the way. The U.S. believed the U-2’s operation ceiling of 80,000 feet was higher than any other plane or missile could reach. Powers was hit by a surface-to-air missile, ejected, and was captured along with the wreckage of his plane. The incident became an international scandal with the U.S. initially attempting to cover it up until the U.S.S.R. revealed it had the pilot and mostly intact plane. Powers was convicted of espionage and sentenced to three years in prison and seven years of hard labor, but released after less than two years in a prisoner exchange that would be the basis of the 2015 Tom Hanks film Bridge of Spies. Powers received a chilly reception for not activating his plane’s self-destruct function or killing himself with provided poison, but was exonerated by the CIA and the Senate Armed Forces Committee. He later worked as a test pilot for Lockheed and finally as a helicopter pilot for KNBC News Channel 4 in Los Angeles, where he was killed in a crash in 1977. This story from 2013 explores the use of American muscle to help pilots land the plane so easy to fly and difficult to land it’s known as the Dragon Lady. The U-2 is still in use today, 64 years after its first flight.
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It’s not unusual in my line of work to be traveling at wide-open throttle in a car with more than 400 horsepower. It is rare, though, to find myself doing that all the way around a corner. It’s extremely rare to do it while chasing down a jet, and yet here I am tearing down a runway at full tilt behind a landing spy plane. I’m in the passenger seat of a Chevrolet Camaro, and, thankfully, the guy driving has done this a few times.
“OK, and that’s 10, eight, eight, eight, six, four, two, two, two,” Lt. Col. Jon Huggins calls out over the radio. He’s in the other “Mobile,” an otherwise stock Chevrolet Camaro SS upfitted with a yellow light bar and military radios. Mere yards ahead of him, a Lockheed U-2 spy plane hovers just above the runway before suddenly dropping to the earth. Along with the man at the stick, Huggins is a U-2 pilot, and none of this is for show; it’s an everyday job.
“It’s actually a lot of work,” my driver, Lt. Col. Mikko LaValley, tells me. “You’re going 100 mph, I’m driving with one hand, I’ve got the radio in the other hand, and I’m calling out distances and giving him advice.”
The question, of course, is why this elaborate, multi-spatial, vehicular dance is taking place. The answer is twofold. The first reason is that the U-2 is an incredibly difficult plane to fly, even for the guys who’ve been doing it a long time.
“The main challenge is below 10 feet — that’s why they call it the Dragon Lady,” Capt. Brandon (his last name is withheld for security reasons, as he’s an active-duty pilot) says. “It’s elbows, hands, feet — everything is working together just to keep the plane going straight and landing on the runway. It’s completely unique. There is no other plane in the world — in the history of aviation — that has the same flying characteristics as the U-2.”
The main challenge is below 10 feet — that’s why they call it the Dragon Lady.
Landing a U-2 is no easy task. Unlike most other planes, the U-2 only has two permanent landing gears, lined up as on a bicycle, rather than three sets of landing gear, arranged like tricycle wheels, as on other planes. The big wheels up front support most of the plane’s weight, while the smaller, “skateboard” wheels at the back steer the plane. The U-2 lands on its tail wheels first because the rudder, which steers the plane while it’s in the air, stops working at low air speeds and on the ground.
On top of that, the pilot has to balance the plane on its two sets of wheels. While the wingtips have titanium skidplates should they drop on the ground, it’s possible for a wingtip to dig in and whip the plane around. Once the plane is stopped off the runway, a crew comes out in a truck and installs the “pogos,” basically metal sticks with little wheels on the bottom that plug into the wings and hold them up while taxiing. The pogos fall off when the plane takes off.
The second reason for the Camaro chase cars is visibility. Because the U-2 flies at 70,000 feet, the pilots have to wear what is essentially a space suit. With the helmet, the fact that they’re strapped in tight, and the limited field of vision through the plane’s windows, it’s difficult for pilots to look down and judge how high they are off the runway.
“Put yourself in a sleeping bag, put oven mitts on your hands and a fishbowl on your head, and go sit in a closet for 10 hours, and you’ll get close to the experience,” says Lt. Col. Colby Kuhns. “That said, the closet doesn’t have nearly the view. The view makes it all worth it.”
In an ideal U-2 landing, the pilot holds the landing gear just 2 feet off the ground, then yanks back on the yoke to stall the plane and drop it onto the runway.
“On any given day, we could do that without a Mobile,” says Kuhns, “but it’s that one day that pilot may not be on it. If you stall that aircraft from 4 feet, you’re probably going to bend something. You stall it from 6 or 10 feet, you’re really going to break something, so having that car there is really a safety check for us to make sure we’re getting down into that zone and not dropping in in a plane that has $250 million worth of sensitive sensors on there.”
“A lot of times it’s not just the top-end speed,” Kuhns explains. “We need the Camaros, or something with a sizeable engine, because you want to be able to catch up if you do it wrong. In all honesty, I can probably do it with a three-cylinder if I have enough run-in time to match his speed, but if I get out there onto the taxiway and let’s say there’s a bunch of fighter jets lined up in my usual path and I have to shorten my path all the way up, now I have to go from zero to probably about 100 mph in a real short span, and if I do it wrong, then he’s gonna be way down the runway, and I’m not gonna be able to give him very good calls. I can only lead the jet so much.”
There’s also the issue of learning how different cars handle. Though the squadron currently has a fleet of Camaros, there are still a few Pontiac G8 GTs left, as well as the odd Pontiac GTO. Some pilots like the GTO best, though others say it’s the most prone to spin. The G8s are well-liked because of their excellent outward visibility, but they’re slow compared with the Camaros, which are hard to see from. When deployed to other bases, pilots can be faced with more choices. At regular stops, they’ll have cars waiting, mostly Audis and Mercedes-Benzes in Europe, for example. At other bases where they don’t normally deploy, they’ll load two of the Camaros into a cargo plane and ship them over.
Then there’s the question of weather. Making that same run in through big puddles and driving rain ups the challenge considerably, and it’s not unheard of for a chase car to spin out.
“You feel bad, because if you spin, you can’t be down there to help the guy land, so he’s on his own,” says Captain Brandon.
Unparalleled capability, ability to deploy anywhere in the world, and the highest-flying conventional plane ever built: Flying the U-2 is a privilege few pilots will ever enjoy. Which is better: flying the plane or chasing it in the car?
“They’re both equally as exciting,” Captain Brandon answers. “The plane, every time you’re flying it, it’s an adventure. Some days, you fly the plane; sometimes the plane tries to fly you. As far as the car, other than being a race-car driver, nowhere else can you go to work, drive a car, get up to maybe 120 mph while holding a radio in one hand and giving calls. The cornering effect, even in a race car, you rarely hit a corner and turn 90 degrees basically at full speed. They’re both equally as exciting. It just depends on the day which one was more fun.”
|U-2 “Dragon Lady”|
|Maximum weight||40,000 lb|
|Cruise speed||475 mph|
|Cruising altitude||70,000 ft|
This story was originally published November 1, 2013.
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