So You Want to Fly a U-2?

Flying in a U-2 requires several days of intense physical and mental training.

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"It'll take an act of God to get her a flight."

So went the first response to the U-2 pilots at Beale AFB who asked about getting me a flight in one of their two-seat training airplanes. In the end, it didn't quite require an act of God. Only a signature from a three-star general. But it did require a significant investment of time and effort, both on my part and on the part of numerous people at Beale AFB. Because flying in a U-2 is a seriously big deal. And if you don't arrive at the base understanding that, the three days of training and preparation that follow will soon take care of that deficiency.

Day one began at 0730, with a flight physical. 70,000 feet is a bad place to discover you're not all that suited to small spaces, thin air or rapid changes in air pressure. Operational U-2 pilots also can't wear contacts, since the pure oxygen they breathe tends to dry out eyes, and there's no way to access or rub your eyes with a space helmet on. But since my flight was only scheduled for three hours, I got a waiver on that front.

From there I went to emergency egress training with Tech. Sgt. Aaron Hartzler. The U-2's ejection system is not as automated or advanced as those used in most fighter jets. Whatever direction you're pointed in when you eject is where you're going to go. And since you're wearing 130 pounds of extra equipment, the rocket that propels you there is bigger than normal, generating a force of 11 to 20 Gs. The parachute is bigger as well, with a bulb-like shape. Oh, yeah. And since the U-2 is a manual airplane, don't expect the pilot to hit that ejection button for you. You're on your own -- which is why the Air Force goes to all this trouble to train you in getting yourself out of the plane in an emergency.

We progress to an egress simulator, where I don a harness and helmet and learn how I can get myself out of the airplane, space suit and all, in case we end up on the ground but away from Beale. There are a couple of "automated" handles that disconnect me from all my various safety and life support equipment. But if they fail, I have to know how to manually disconnect myself from 10 different systems and restraining devices. Hartzler closes the canopy and tilts the plane 45 degrees on its side. U-2 pilots have to get themselves disentangled from the plane in less than 60 seconds. Seconds and then minutes tick by as I struggle to release air hoses, latches and safety cables. I'm successful, but I conclude that if the airplane really crash lands and catches fire, I'm probably going to burn up with it. Hartlzer assures me that adrenaline will kick in and improve my time dramatically.

In the afternoon, I move on to Sr. Airman Shawn O'Day for parachute and survival training. If I have to eject from the U-2, I will stay attached to the seat until 15,000 feet. At that point, the seat will separate, and the work begins. I learn how to deal with fouled lines, a partially inflated canopy, an inverted lobe, and holes in the canopy fabric. O'Day stresses that I can only cut away a total of six tangled lines. I dutifully note the restrictions, even as a piece of my brain decides that if I find myself putting this plan into action, the "six line" restriction is going to be the least of my problems.

I learn how I must then gain canopy control and steer the chute toward an appropriate landing site, into the wind and away from obstacles and trees. All that while opening my visor, closing my UCD valve, separating my communication cord, disconnecting my suit vent hose, removing my boot spur cables, and releasing my seat kit from my backside.

Piece of cake.

We practice the last bit of the descent and how to land properly, with feet and legs together and a rolling fall to the downwind side. O'Day then puts me in a harness and has me practice getting myself out of a 150-foot-tall tree with a PLD (Personnel Lowering Device), in case I don't quite manage to successfully implement the "land away from obstacles and trees" instruction.

We then move onto the survival part of the training. Packed into the seat of a U-2 is an astounding array of survival equipment. When I release my seat kit (so I don't land with all that weight attached to me, which would probably break my back), I will have, strung out along a lanyard beneath me: a seat cushion, a life raft and a waterproof survival kit.

I learn how and when to tie a tourniquet; how and when to use flares, mirrors and ocean dye for signaling; how to use a magnesium fire stick; how to repair a life raft, desalinate ocean water, find edible plants and good water sources; and how to keep my priorities of survival straight.

Day two begins with an introduction to life in a space suit. The suits are made by the David Clark company, and are almost identical to the ones used by Space Shuttle astronauts, except for color and the altitude at which they inflate. I learn how the suit is made (three layers, one of which is hand-crocheted), and how to operate its venting and inflation systems. This is important, because my body temperature will rise one degree every minute I'm in the suit without ventilation, and if my temperature goes above 106 degrees, it can be fatal.

I learn about treating decompression sickness and hypoxia, and what foods to avoid for the next 24 hours. I learn how to use the UCD (urine collection device) that allows U-2 pilots to fly long missions in a suit that must be kept sealed at all times. And I say a quiet prayer of thanks to the six female Air Force U-2 pilots who finally adapted a workable UCD system for women.

I learn all the features of my S-1034 space helmet, complete with a small opening for a feeding tube. The meal selection for U-2 pilots includes such gourmet treats as clam chowder and apple pie -- all good for four years on the shelf -- although, as my instructor Claire Rowan acknowledged, "obviously, the texture, you have to overcome that."

After I absorb an overload of information about high-altitude physiology, hypoxia and pressure suit operation, we move on to the altitude chamber training, where I'll have the chance to put all that theory into practice. I worm my way into my pressure suit and get closed into the artificial environment that will keep me alive in the chamber.

I move awkwardly into a small compartment in the chamber, where two airmen strap me into a U-2 ejection seat. The chamber is sealed off, and we do sinus checks at 5,000, climb to 18,000, and then do both rapid and slow decompressions to 65,000 and 75,000 feet.

I discover, among other things, that my arms are too short to reach the U-2's main ejection handle with my pressure suit fully inflated. In my case, the back-up ejection system will be my primary option. But that's why they do all this training ahead of time. I might not remember it all, but they're trying to give me at least a chance at surviving this, if worse comes to worst. And I'm touched by how seriously everyone is taking that instruction.

In the afternoon, I get cockpit orientation and Cabi and I go through a mission briefing. My head is pounding by the time we wrap up. No wonder they don't give out these flights more often. The staff time and effort that's been invested in orienting and training me for a mere three-hour flight is staggering.

I feel a combination of grateful and slightly guilty as the staff from the Physiological Support Division suit me up the next morning for my flight. Grateful, guilty and, to be honest, just a tad apprehensive. Having learned all the ways I can have a really bad day in this plane, and just how bad the U-2 version of "bad" can be, I have a moment or two of questioning whether this was really such a good idea, after all.

The PSD folks are reassuring as they close me into my suit and hook me up to the pure oxygen I have to breathe for an hour before take off, to keep me from getting the bends at altitude. Finally, it's time to go. As Cabi and I head out to the van that will take us to our aircraft, I shake the hands of my support crew and instructors. Our eyes meet for a moment. I mouth the words "thank you." They nod and smile.

As I head out to the plane, I don't know if I'm going to do them proud or not. But I know I'm certainly going to try.

Also read these related stories:

Dragon Hearts

Dragon Hawks: The U-2's Future

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