Dragon Hearts

** The curvature of the Earth, seen from near
the edge of space.**

There is frost accumulating inside the windows of my cockpit. I reach a gloved hand up and scrape a clear opening in the ice. The long, graceful lines of the left wing extend almost 50 feet into the impossibly thin air surrounding us. Normally when I fly, I'm off the surface of the planet, but still deep within the ocean of air that cushions and protects us from the vast and icy universe beyond. But today, even the majority of that atmospheric ocean lies beneath me. I'm not so much flying in it as I am surfing just beneath its surface.

I look out along the long, dark wing of the U-2. If I leaned closer to the window -- no mean feat in a cumbersome space suit and helmet -- I could probably look down and identify some of the individual landmarks below. Certainly the U-2's cameras and sensors are powerful enough to discern even minute movements in equipment and personnel on terrain lying more than 14 miles beneath us.

But at the moment, my focus is not local, but global. At an altitude of well over 70,000 feet, my world is bigger than it's ever been. Ocean and mountains are contained in a single glance; the California coastline seems to rise in front of us as we make our way south, even as the land and sea drop away to either side. The curve of the Earth is only faintly discernable, even at this altitude. But it's there, a multi-hued, bending arc of horizon that belies the foolish notion that any place on Earth is flat.

Ringing the brown-and-blue hues of the planet's surface is a narrow band of white haze. That would be our atmosphere. And even though there's still a long distance between us and the formal boundary of Space, the U-2's wing seems to be skimming along the top of that precious atmospheric haze. Above the haze, there's a thin line of light blue, where enough water molecules still exist to create the illusion of color. Above that, the sky gets progressively darker, from midnight blue to black.

I look left, then right, and finally just sit quietly, in awe of the planet I call home. It's such a complex place -- at once a vast and powerful rock, spinning slowly through the cosmos, and a unique and delicate ecosystem sustained by an impossibly fragile cushion of air. An ecosystem, I remind myself, that I have left in order to purchase this view and out-of-planet experience.

I sit back and contemplate the surreal nature of the U-2 pilot's world. My breath echoes inside my helmet with the raspy, regulated rhythm of Darth Vader -- an appropriate analogy because, like Anakin, I cannot survive here without the machinery I'm attached to. And it's not just about portable oxygen. Above 63,000 feet -- a point known as "Armstrong's Line" -- the liquid in a human body boils. Hence the pressure suit. There is no margin here. And everything is an effort. Turning my head. Taking a sip of water. Reaching for a pencil. Even flying the plane is better done by autopilot, because at altitudes above 70,000 feet, a mere 10 knots can stand in between our stall speed and redline -- the infamous "coffin corner." And, as the name implies, straying either side of that narrow window tends to end the same way: badly.

We don't belong here.

Somewhere in the back recesses of my brain, I can't escape the feeling that we're surreptitious infiltrators -- rebels who've cunningly figured out a way to slip out of our world into the forbidden edges of another, where only creatures who don't need oxygen, air pressure or heat can survive. Isn't this what led Icarus to his doom?

That we are able to successfully operate aircraft in such a hostile environment is amazing. That we've been doing it for over 50 years is mind-boggling.

The U-2 was a product of the Lockheed "Skunk Works." It first flew in 1955 -- a single-point design that paired the basic fuselage of an F-104 with an 80-foot wing to produce a plane capable of sustained flight at extraordinarily high altitudes. But to achieve that goal with only a single, early-generation jet engine, every other "normal" aircraft requirement was jettisoned.

The U-2 is a tailwheel aircraft -- the last one remaining in the Air Force inventory -- but its two landing gear are set in a tandem configuration along the centerline of the fuselage. For taxi and takeoff, portable "pogo" wheels, which drop away after lift-off, are placed underneath the wings. But they're not available for landing. So bringing a U-2 back to Earth is, as pilot Maj. Cory Bartholomew puts it, "like landing a bicycle on a runway." A tailwheel bicycle, no less. Even with a good landing, one wing will eventually drop and contact the runway, shielded from damage by titanium wing skids. But good landings are an elusive commodity in the U-2.

"When I got [to the U-2] I had 2,000 tailwheel hours," says former U-2 pilot Bill Williams, "And my worst T-6 landing was a walk in the park compared to the U-2." Maj. John "Cabi" Cabigas, the instructor pilot who flew me in the U-2, heartily agreed. "Of all the inventory of the Air Force," he told me, "[the U-2] is the most difficult airplane to land."

In case I needed any reinforcement on that, Cabi suggested I follow through with him on our first landing, after our high flight. I dutifully put my gloved hands on the yoke and my booted feet on the rudder pedals and valiantly tried to keep up with Cabi as he wrestled the plane down final against gusty, 12- to 15-knot crosswinds. But within a few seconds, I jerked my hands and feet as far back from the controls as I could get them as I watched the controls go through more apoplectically rapid contortions and combinations of full-stop deflections in all axes than I've ever seen a pilot manage. No wonder the U-2 carries the moniker "Dragon Lady."

And while the tandem gear is part of the reason the U-2 is such a handful, it's not the only reason. Another factor is the long, high-aspect-ratio wing (104 feet, tip-to-tip, on the U-2S), which floats in ground effect and won't land unless it's fully stalled. The U-2 also lacks boosted controls -- one of many weight-saving trade-offs Lockheed made to meet the plane's challenging design goal. Other sacrifices included the lack of an ejection seat in the early models and a low G-force limit on the airframe.

How low is low? "We try to keep it below two Gs," says U-2 instructor pilot Lt. Col. Jon "Huggy" Huggins. I ask how many Gs the aircraft is actually stressed to take. "We try to keep it below two Gs," Huggy repeats, nodding for emphasis.

As for the lack of boosted controls ... while it makes landings more challenging, it's most noticeable in the higher-power, higher-speed flight realms of flight -- at least, until the U-2 gets up high. To demonstrate, Cabi had me try some simple 30-degree turns at various speeds and altitudes. (Although, just to make sure it's clear for the record ... my instructor pilot remained in command of the aircraft at all times, as per official military regulations.)

At 10,000 feet and 90 knots, the U-2 takes 60 pounds of force to roll the yoke over, and 150 pounds of force to push the rudder pedals to the floor. But still, the plane handles much like other solid, rudder-heavy airplanes I've flown, like the DC-3. At 130 knots, however, that starts to change. It's a real challenge to get enough rudder and aileron movement to get that 30-degree bank accomplished. And at 220 knots, the task is all but impossible. I put two hands on the yoke and turn, hard. No luck. I have my full body force leaning into the yoke before I get it to move.

But there's also a reason the U-2 is referred to as a "Lady" as well as a Dragon. Because at 62,000 feet (which the U-2 reaches in a mere 20 minutes) and cruise speed (about .71 Mach), the U-2 becomes the smoothest-handling sports car you'd ever want to fly. She's a delight of harmonized grace, with finger-touch controls. This is a plane that's very clear about where she wants to be. And she gets grouchy and cantankerous if you try to fly her anywhere else.

"You either wrestle with the dragon or dance with the lady," Cabi tells me. "And you're never quite sure which one she's going to be."

Operational U-2 pilots also do that wrestling and dancing for more than 10 hours at a stretch, all alone, over hostile territory, in a cumbersome space suit that makes even a task like scratching your nose a major production. Early U-2 pilots had it worse -- their partial pressure suits constricted to maintain a survivable pressure, often leaving pilots with terrible bruises and blisters after a long mission. Today's full-pressure suits are a vast improvement. But they're still awkward, and the pressurized cabin altitude in a U-2 is still 29,500 feet. As one U-2 pilot put it, "you're about as comfortable as you can be encased in rubber, sitting in a phone booth, on top of Mt. Everest."

So the $64,000 question is ... why do pilots who could be flying F-15s choose instead to take on all the discomforts and challenges of a cantankerous, 50-year-old airplane that's highly likely to humble them on a regular basis? The question is relevant, because every single U-2 pilot is a volunteer. You have to apply (including an essay on "Why I want to fly the U-2"), and the process includes an arduous, two-week interview/try-out at Beale AFB in Northern California -- the training and home base of all 33 remaining U-2S and TU-2S aircraft.

For some, it's the mission. "The best part for me," Williams said, "was having the President hold up photos and say 'here's the proof' of something, and know I took those photos." The datalink capabilities of the U-2s flying over Afghanistan and Iraq today are so good that detailed images of moving targets on the ground can arrive at an intelligence ground station within seconds. And if the need is acute, specialists can analyze the images and forward them on to commanders in the field within minutes. U-2 pilots can sometimes see ordnance landing on targets they've photographed while they're still flying overhead.

Another piece of the appeal is the fact that every flight is a real-life mission. "I came here from SAC (Strategic Air Command)," Bartholomew adds. "And there, we were always practicing. Here, every day is the mission."

Every day is also a flight day. At any given moment, somewhere in the world, a U-2 is airborne. And the cadre of U-2 pilots has always been so small that, as one pilot put it, "more people can legitimately wear a Super Bowl ring than can wear a U-2 solo patch." Since 1955, less than 850 pilots have soloed the U-2, and there are only about 60 active U-2 pilots, worldwide. Do the math. That's a lot of flying time per pilot.

"One of the reasons I wanted to fly the U-2 is that I could protect my flying time, and I didn't have to share stick time with anyone," laughs former U-2 pilot Mike Smith. It sounds like an easy, flippant reply. But the truth is ... in Smith's answer lies the core reason most of the U-2 pilots are there.

The U-2 isn't the fastest, sexiest or most glamorous airplane in the Air Force, and flying it may not be the quickest road to promotion or glory. Being a U-2 pilot also means being deployed 180 days a year -- not as a squadron or base, but with only a couple of airplanes and crews at forward locations. As Huggins puts it, "the guys who camp out here make a lot of sacrifices to do this."

Yet the squadron has drawn pilots from almost every other aircraft assignment in the Air Force, and every branch of the military -- even though those pilots have to give up their original commissions and become Air Force officers in order to fly the U-2. That alone speaks volumes, considering how fierce service loyalty and rivalry can be (see: Army-Navy football game). But many of those pilots also end up staying with the U-2 so long they end up retiring out of the squadron.

Why? Because U-2 pilots don't just love to fly. They really love to fly. And the U-2 offers both the most stick time, and the best stick-and-rudder flying, around.

"We attract aviators," says Lt. Col. Mike Glaccum, commander of the 1st Reconnaissance Squadron at Beale. "People who come to fly this airplane have a passion for aviation and airplanes. I can't put it more simply than that."

The proof of that lies just beyond the boundaries of Beale, in the small airports of Grass Valley, Marysville, Yuba City and Lincoln, California. Because that's where many of the U-2 pilots keep their other wings -- Stinson 108s, Piper Cubs, Cessna 140s and 170s, and a variety of other GA airplanes. Almost every weekend, a gaggle of current and former U-2 pilots can be found flying together somewhere in the area.

For some of the pilots, their love of small taildraggers came before the U-2; for others, it followed as the U-2 made them masters of the art. But a surprising number of pilots at Beale own and fly small airplanes on the side. And they are every bit as enthusiastic about their little planes as they are about the jet-powered T-38 (which they fly for instrument proficiency) and the U-2.

Not 24 hours after taking me flying in the upper reaches of the atmosphere, Cabi tucked me into his Piper J-3 Cub and took me flying at his other favorite cruising altitude ... 200 feet, over the open rice paddies and wheat fields of the Sacramento Valley. The door was open, and the warm air and fresh smells of the earth wafted through the cockpit -- a stark sensory contrast to the hermetically sealed environment we'd flown in the day before. But Cabi had a grin on his face every bit as big as the one he wore after climbing out of the U-2 -- a grin shared by all the other U-2 pilots who joined us for a fly-out barbecue that morning.

In some ways, they're the same grins of shared understanding, passion and love of old tailwheel flying machines that I've encountered all over the world. But the ties between these particular tailwheel pilots go much deeper than that. The select cadre of U-2 pilots is known, simply, as "the Brotherhood." In part, the bond that label implies comes from the uniqueness of the mission, and the small number of pilots who've ever joined the club. It may also reflect the fact that every U-2 pilot is there because he or she passionately wants to be there.

"I knew the squadron dynamics would be better, but I didn't know how much better, being in a place where everyone wants to be there," Smith told me -- a sentiment echoed by numerous other pilots.

Equally important is the unusual level of interdependence among U-2 pilots and their crews. Visibility in the U-2 on take off and landing is so poor that pilots have to be guided off and back onto the planet by other U-2 pilots driving "chase" cars behind the airplane (see Flying Lessons, November 2008). And far more than in any other airplane, a U-2 pilot's life lies in the hands of the physiological and maintenance support personnel who create the fragile, artificial bubble a U-2 pilot needs to survive.

"The support crew may be 22 year olds, but they're the best of the best," one pilot told me. "Never in my Air Force career, before coming to the U-2, did I feel like my life was in the hands of my support crew. But here, the environment we operate in is so deadly, they know that if they so much as attach a glove wrong, you're going to die." And all of those bonds are both tested and strengthened on the long, small-group deployments -- which is also another reason U-2 commanders are so careful about who they approve for a U-2 assignment.

But somewhere in the mix is also something else: a shared love of flying for the pure joy of flying, and a shared love for the same remarkable but challenging lady. I don't pretend to truly understand. I haven't wrestled the Dragon to the ground, or spent long, solitary nights on patrol high above the Earth, over hostile territory, with only the mission and the stars to keep me company.

But I do know something about loving an old tailwheel airplane that isn't always easy or forgiving. And I suspect that part of the passion pilots feel for the legendary Dragon Lady stems from the fact that, unlike more technologically advanced and automated military jets, flying the U-2 is personal. To fly the U-2 is to get to know the actual feel of its cables and control surfaces. To judge its alignment by a yaw string. To learn to intuitively sense any side-forces on landing. We may dream about many new and shiny things, but we love best those things we know intimately well -- unvarnished, unfiltered, and through touch, sense and memorable shared experience.

In the early days of aviation, even fighter pilots had that kind of nuanced feel for their airplanes. They had to. But in today's world of computerized flight systems, the U-2 offers Air Force pilots a rare opportunity to combine the romance of stick-and-rudder flying with the best technological know-how -- not only in life-support systems, but in cutting-edge reconnaissance equipment that imbues every flight with a sense of meaningful accomplishment and purpose.

Fifty years after it first took to the skies, the U-2 remains a study in opposites. It's a 53-year-old airplane performing cutting-edge surveillance. Flying it requires both sophisticated life support technology and the nuanced skill of an old barnstormer. Its pilots fly all alone, yet cannot survive or land safely without the help of others. It is at once both a dragon and a lady.

But in one aspect, at least, the Lockheed U-2 has always been absolutely straightforward: The view it offers the small brotherhood of pilots who've learned how to tame it ... is out of this world.

Also read these related stories:

Dragon Hawks: The U-2's Future

So You Want to Fly a U-2?

Flying Lessons: From Dream to Reality: A Girl, a Plane and a Space Suit


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