What it takes to fly the U-2 spy plane at the edge of outer space

Military Tech

When an Air Force major called J.J. completed a solo flight in the U-2 in late August 2016 — 60 years after the high-flying aircraft was introduced — he became the 1,000th pilot to do so.

J.J., whose name was withheld by the U.S. Air Force for security reasons, earned his solo patch a few days after pilots No. 998 and No. 999. Those three pilots are in distinguished company, two fellow pilots said this month.

"We have a pretty small, elite team of folks. We're between about 60 and 70 active-duty pilots at any given time," Maj. Matt "Top" Nauman said during an Air Force event at the Intrepid Sea, Air, and Space Museum in New York City.

"We're about 1,050 [pilots] right now. So to put that in context, there are more people with Super Bowl rings than there are people with U-2 patches," Nauman added. "It's a pretty small group of people that we've hired over the last 60 to 65 years."


Pilots at Beale Air Force Base go through pre-flight checks on a U-2 during the 2018 Marine Corps Air Station Miramar Air Show, September 29, 2018(U.S. Air Force/Staff Sgt. Jeffrey Schultze)

The U-2 pilot cadre has remained small in part because the Air Force has long sought applicants with extensive experience and flight time — six years and 1,200 rated hours — to fly a challenging, single-seat plane up to 13 miles above the Earth, all while snapping reconnaissance images. Pilots from all backgrounds, from fighter to trainer, can apply, as can transfers from the Navy, Marines, and Coast Guard.

The Air Force also recently introduced a program allowing student pilots to go directly to the U-2 training pipeline, though that program will only send a few fliers to the Dragon Lady.

The mission itself also keeps the ranks trim. "Part of the reason that we cut so many of the applicants is it's a really difficult plane to fly," said Nauman, who joined the U-2 program in 2012.

The first phase is an interview at Beale Air Force Base, California where the U-2s are based, meant to assess "self-confidence, professionalism and airmanship" on the ground and during flights in a TU-2, the U-2 training aircraft.

99th Expeditionary Reconnaissance Squadron airmen prepare a U-2 pilot for a mission at Al Dhafra Air Base in the United Arab Emirates, March 13, 2019(U.S. Air Force/Senior Airman Gracie I. Lee)

On a 2012 fact sheet about the application process, the Air Force said pilots "selected for an interview generally possess a strong flight evaluation history, strong performance evaluations, and exceed the minimum flight experience requirements."

"When you do an interview, you actually go out to Beale for two weeks," Nauman said. "You'll sit down and talk with the different commanders, the directors of operations, [go] over your flight records, your performance reviews, and just kind of your overall goals. 'So why do you want to fly the U-2? What is it that brought you here?'"

An applicant who makes it through the interviews in Week 1 moves on to Week 2, "where you actually get to fly the aircraft," Nauman said.

"For some folks, they may have never seen a U-2 in person, and the first time they actually touch the jet is Day 1 of their interview," Nauman added. "They've read about it. They've seen it. They've talked to some people they knew, but by Week 2 they actually put in you a two-seater with an instructor and you have to demonstrate the ability to land the aircraft."

A U-2 pilot waits for maintainers and crew chiefs to finish final checks before the scheduled flight time at Beale Air Force Base, California, October 26, 2017.(U.S. Air Force/Senior Airman Justin Parsons)

While the U-2 excels at high-altitude reconnaissance missions — its ceiling is above 70,000 feet — taking off and landing are more challenging in the ungainly aircraft, which has a 105-foot wingspan and only two landing gear, under the nose and the tail.

Landing requires a kind of controlled crash in which the pilot descends and slows until the plane stalls, dropping onto the runway — all done with the guidance of fellow pilots racing alongside in cars.

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"It's extremely difficult to land," Nauman said. "You could YouTube videos of bad U-2 landings all day and see interview sorties that look a little bit sketchy. Understand we have a very wide runway and very experienced acceptance flight instructors, so it is safe despite what you might see."

Applicants do three acceptance flight sorties, during which they perform flight maneuvers, approaches and landings, and other scenarios, including driving the chase car that assists landing U-2s. After that, a decision is made about whether the applicant will be offered an assignment.

A U-2 lands at Al Dhafra Air Base in the United Arab Emirates, November 16, 2017.(U.S. Air National Guard/Staff Sgt. Colton Elliott)

If you do the flying portion of the interview but aren't picked, "we will not interview you again," the Air Force says. "Basically, you get one shot."

U-2 flight training includes time in the T-38 trainer and time to get other qualifications pilots may need, before moving on to flying the actual U-2, on which trainees must complete two courses: basic and mission. Those take about three months each.

The whole training program can take nine months to a year. The 1st Reconnaissance Wing, which Maj. J.J. joined in August 2016, has eight classes of three new pilots each year.

The solo flight that made J.J. the 1,000 solo pilot was his seventh in the aircraft but his first without an instructor. That first solo was to be followed by a few more two-person outings, after which he would never again have to fly the U-2 with someone else.

'The tricks of the trade'

US Air Force Maj. Sean Gallagher greets his ground support crew before a U-2 mission somewhere in Southwest Asia, November 24, 2010.(U.S. Air Force/Staff Sgt. Eric Harris)

Trainees adjusting to the technical challenges of the U-2 also have to adapt to the physical strain of operating it.

Cruising at 70,000 feet puts the plane above the Armstrong Line — the point at which the boiling point for liquids, like blood, is equal to the normal human body temperature — and requires pilots to wear a space suit that weighs about 70 pounds. Pilots also have to breathe pure oxygen before flying to rid their system of nitrogen.

The suit can be a physical and psychological stumbling block. Interviewees must sit in it for at least 45 minutes to prove their mettle before moving on.

"So you get suited up. You go out to the aircraft. It's pretty warm on the ground, so it could be an endurance test at times," Maj. Travis "Lefty" Patterson, a U-2 pilot, said at the event.

"If you're delayed in take off, your core temperature is heating up pretty rapidly as you're sitting in, effectively, a plastic bag with a fishbowl" on your head, Patterson added.

The cabin is also pressurized, Patterson said. Previous generations of U-2 pilots flew at what felt like about 29,000 feet — roughly the height of Mt. Everest. (That altitude, along with the challenges of longer and more complex missions in the 2000s, took a toll on pilots' health.)

A U-2 pilot prepares for takeoff at Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada, December 12, 2018.(U.S. Air Force/Airman 1st Class Bailee A. Darbasie)

In the last decade however, the Air Force has brought the U-2's cockpit altitude down.

"We're only sitting at about 15,000 feet — a little higher than you would on a normal airliner," Patterson added. "We still wear that suit in the event that there's a malfunction or we have to eject or something like that."

The pilot is strapped into that suit and flying at that altitude for up to 10 hours or 12 hours. But with their focus on the task at hand, a pilot can forget they're even wearing the suit, Patterson said.

Upon return, however, pilots still getting used to the Dragon Lady may feel the strain acutely.

"I think after my interview sortie, I came back and [said], 'Wow, I feel like I just did three days of straight Crossfit,' just because I didn't know all the tricks of the trade," Patterson added.

"A good U-2 pilot will land, and you won't be able to tell from the outside, but inside it's almost like you're flailing around. You're moving the yoke around. Your feet are moving the rudders. It's kind of like a full-body workout sometimes."

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