FLIGHT OF THE DRAGON LADY
Maj. Dean Neeley is in the forward, lower cockpit of
the Lockheed U-2ST, a two-place version of the U-2S, a high-altitude
reconnaissance aircraft that the Air Force calls "Dragon Lady."
His voice on the intercom breaks the silence,"Do you know that
you're the highest person in the world?"
He explains that I am in the higher of the two cockpits and that
there are no other U-2s airborne right now."Astronauts don't
count,"he says,"They're out of this world."
We are above 70,000 feet and still climbing slowly as the aircraft
becomes lighter. The throttle has been at its mechanical limit since takeoff, and
the single General Electric F118-GE-101 turbofan engine sips fuel so slowly at
this altitude that consumption is less than when idling on the ground. Although
true airspeed is that of a typical jetliner, indicated airspeed registers only
in double digits
I cannot detect the curvature of the Earth, although some U-2 pilots
claim that they can.
The sky at the horizon is
hazy white but transitions to midnight blue at our zenith.
seems that if we were much higher, the sky would become black enough to see
stars at noon. The Sierra Nevada, the mountainous spine of California, has lost
its glory, a mere corrugation on the Earth. Lake Tahoe looks like a fishing
hole, and rivers have become rivulets. Far below, "high flying"
jetliners etch contrails over Reno, Nevada, but we are so high above these
aircraft that they cannot be seen.
cannot detect air noise through the helmet of my pressure suit.
hear only my own breathing, the hum of avionics through my headset and, inexplicably,
an occasional, shallow moan from the engine, as if it were gasping for air.
Atmospheric pressure is only an inch of mercury, less than� 4 percent of
sea-level pressure. Air density and engine power are similarly low. The
stratospheric wind is predictably light, from the southwest at 5 kt, and the
outside air temperature is minus 61 degrees Celsius.
though not required, we remain in contact with Oakland Center while in the
Class E airspace that begins at Flight Level 600. The U-2's Mode C transponder,
however, can indicate no higher than FL600. When other U-2s are in the area,
pilots report their altitudes, and ATC keeps them separated by 5,000 feet and
Our high-flying living quarters are pressurized to 29,500 feet, but
100-percent oxygen supplied only to our faces lowers our physiological altitude
to about 8,000 feet. A pressurization-system failure would cause our suits to
instantly inflate to maintain a pressure altitude of 35,000 feet, and the flow
of pure oxygen would provide a physiological altitude of 10,000 feet
The forward and aft cockpits are configured almost
identically. A significant difference is the down-looking periscope/drift-meter
in the center of the forward instrument panel. It is used to precisely track over specific
ground points during reconnaissance, something that otherwise would be
impossible from high altitude. The forward cockpit also is equipped with�a
small side-view mirror extending into the air stream. It is used to determine
if the U-2 is generating a telltale contrail when over hostile territory.
Considering its 103-foot wingspan and resultant roll
dampening, the U-2 maneuvers surprisingly well at altitude; the controls are
light and nicely harmonized. Control wheels (not sticks) are used, however, perhaps
because aileron forces are heavy at low altitude. A yaw string (like those used
on sailplanes) above each canopy silently admonishes those who allow the
aircraft to slip or skid when maneuvering. The U-2 is very much a
stick-and-rudder airplane, and I discover that slipping can be avoided by
leading turn entry and recovery with slight rudder pressure.
When approaching its service ceiling, the U-2's
maximum speed is little more than its minimum. This marginal difference between
the onset of stall buffet and Mach buffet is known as coffin corner, an area
warranting caution. A stall/spin sequence can cause control loss from which
recovery might not be possible when so high, and an excessive Mach number can
compromise structural integrity. Thankfully, an autopilot with Mach hold is
The U-2 has a fuel capacity of 2,915 gallons of
thermally stable jet fuel distributed among four wing tanks. It is unusual to
discuss turbine fuel in gallons instead of pounds, but the 1950s-style fuel
gauges in the U-2 indicate in gallons. Most of the other flight instruments
seem equally antiquated.
I train at 'The Ranch'. Preparation for my high
flight began the day before at Beale Air Force Base ( a.k.a. The Ranch), which
is north of Sacramento, CA, and was where German prisoners of war were interned
during World War II. It is home to the 9th Reconnaissance Wing, which is
responsible for worldwide U-2 operations, including those aircraft based in
Cyprus; Italy; Saudi Arabia; and South Korea.
After passing a physical exam (whew!), I took a
short, intensive course in high-altitude physiology and use of the pressure
suit. The 27-pound Model S1034 "pilot's protective assembly" is the
same as the one used by astronauts during shuttle launch and reentry.
After being measured for my $150,000 spacesuit, I spent an hour in the
egress trainer. It provided no comfort to learn that pulling up mightily on the
handle between my legs would activate the ejection seat at any altitude or
airspeed. When the handle is pulled, the control wheels go fully forward,
explosives dispose of the canopy, cables attached to spurs on your boots pull
your feet aft, and you are rocketed into space. You could then free fall in
your inflated pressure suit for 54,000 feet or more. I was told that�"the parachute opens
automatically at 16,500 feet, or you get a refund."
I later donned a harness and virtual-reality goggles
to practice steering a parachute to landing. After lunch, a crew assisted me
into a pressure suit in preparation for my visit to the altitude chamber. There
I became reacquainted with the effects of hypoxia and was subjected to a sudden
decompression that elevated the chamber to 73,000 feet. The pressure suit
inflated as advertised and just as suddenly I became the Michelin man. I was told
that it is possible to fly the U-2 while puffed up but that it is difficult. A
beaker of water in the chamber boiled furiously to demonstrate what would
happen to my blood if I were exposed without protection to ambient pressure
above 63,000 feet.
After a thorough preflight briefing the next
morning, Neeley and I put on long johns and UCDs (urinary collection devices),
were assisted into our pressure suits, performed a leak check (both kinds), and
settled into a pair of reclining lounge chairs for an hour of breathing pure
oxygen. This displaces nitrogen in the blood to prevent decompression sickness
(the bends) that could occur during ascent. During this
"pre-breathing," I felt as though I were in a Ziploc bag-style cocoon
and anticipated the possibility of claustrophobia. There was none, and I soon
became comfortably acclimatized to my confinement.
We were in the aircraft an hour later. Preflight
checks completed and engine started, we taxied to Beale's 12,000-foot-long
runway. The single main landing gear is not steerable, differential braking is
unavailable, and the dual tail wheels move only 6 degrees in each direction, so
it takes a lot of concrete to maneuver on the ground. Turn radius is 189 feet,
and I had to lead with full rudder in anticipation of all turns.
We taxied into position and came to a halt so that
personnel could remove the safety pins from the outrigger wheels (called pogos)
that prevent one wing tip or the other from scraping the ground. Lt. Col. Greg
"Spanky" Barber, another U-2 pilot, circled the aircraft in a mobile
command vehicle to give the aircraft a final exterior check.
I knew that the U-2 is overpowered at sea level. It
has to be for its engine, normally aspirated like every other turbine engine,
to have enough power remaining to climb above 70,000 feet. Also, we weighed
only 24,000 pounds (maximum allowable is 41,000 pound s) and were departing
into a brisk headwind. Such knowledge did not prepare me for what followed. The
throttle was fully advanced and would remain that way until the beginning of
descent. The 17,000 pounds of thrust made it feel as though I had been shot
from a cannon. Within two to three seconds and 400 feet of takeoff roll, the
wings flexed, the pogos fell away, and we entered a nose-up attitude of almost
45 degrees at a best-angle-of-climb airspeed of 100 kts. Initial climb rate was
We were still over the runway and through 10,000 feet less than 90
seconds from brake release. One need not worry about a flame out after takeoff
in a U-2. There either is enough runway to land straight ahead or enough
altitude (only 1,000 feet is needed) to circle the airport for a dead-stick
approach and landing. The bicycle landing gear creates little drag and has no
limiting air-speed, so there was no rush to tuck away the wheels. (The landing
gear is not retracted at all when in the traffic pattern shooting touch and
We passed through 30,000 feet five minutes after liftoff and climb rate
steadily decreased until above 70,000 feet, when further climb occurred only as
the result of fuel burn. On final approach Dragon Lady is still drifting toward
the upper limits of the atmosphere at 100 to 200 fpm and will continue to do so
until it is time to descend. It spends little of its life at a given altitude.
Descent begins by retarding the throttle to idle and lowering the landing gear.
We raise the spoilers, deploy the speed brakes (one on each side of the aft
fuselage), and engage the gust alleviation system. This raises both ailerons 7.5
degrees above their normal neutral point and deflects the wing flaps 6.5
degrees upward. This helps to unload the wings and protect the airframe during
possible turbulence in the lower atmosphere.
Gust protection is needed because the Dragon Lady is
like a China doll; she cannot withstand heavy gust and maneuvering loads.
Strength would have required a heavier structure, and the U-2's designer,
Clarence "Kelly" Johnson, shaved as much weight as possible-which is
why there are only two landing gear legs instead of three. Every pound saved
resulted in a 10-foot increase in ceiling.
With everything possible hanging and extended, the U-2 shows little
desire to go down. It will take 40 minutes to descend to traffic pattern
altitude but we needed only half that time climbing to altitude. During this
normal descent, the U-2 covers 37 nm for each 10,000 of altitude lost. When
clean and at the best glide speed of 109 kts, it has a glide ratio of 28:1.
It is difficult to imagine ever being beyond glide range of a suitable
airport except when over large bodies of water or hostile territory. Because
there is only one fuel quantity gauge, and it shows only the total remaining,
it is difficult to know whether fuel is distributed evenly, which is important
when landing a U-2. A low-altitude stall is performed to determine which is the
heavier wing, and some fuel is then transferred from it to the other. We are on
final approach with flaps at 35 degrees (maximum is 50 degrees) in a slightly
nose-down attitude. The U-2 is flown with a heavy 1.1 VSO (75 kts), very close
to stall. More speed would result in excessive floating. I peripherally see
Barber accelerating the 140-mph, chase car along the runway as he joins in
tight formation with our landing aircraft. I hear him on the radio calling out
our height tandard practice for all U-2 landings). The U-2 must be close to
norm al touchdown attitude at� a height of one foot before the control
wheel is brought firmly aft to stall the wings and plant the tail wheels on the
concrete. The feet remain active on the pedals, during which time it is
necessary to work diligently to keep the wings level. A roll spoiler on each
wing lends a helping hand when its respective aileron is raised more than 13
The aircraft comes to rest, a wing tip falls to the
ground, and crewmen appear to reattach the pogos for taxiing. Landing a U-2 is
notoriously challenging, especially for those who have never flown tail
draggers or sailplanes. It can be like dancing with a lady or wrestling a
dragon, depending on wind and runway conditions. Maximum allowable crosswind�is 15 kts.
The U-2 was first flown by Tony Levier in August
1955, at Groom Lake (Area 51), Nevada.
The aircraft was then known as Article 341, an attempt by the Central Intelligence
Agency to disguise the secret nature of its project. Current U-2s are 40
percent larger and much more powerful than the one in which Francis Gary Powers
was downed by a missile over the Soviet Union on May 1, 1960. The Soviets
referred to the U-2 as the "Black Lady of Espionage" because of its
spy missions and mystique. The age of its design, however, belies the
sophistication of the sensing technology carried within. During U.S.
involvement in Kosovo, for example, U-2s gathered and forwarded data via
satellite to Intelligence at Beale AFB for instant alysis. The results were
sent via satellite to battle commanders, who decided whether attack aircraft
should be sent to the target. In one case, U-2 sensors detected enemy aircraft
parked on a dirt road and camouflaged by thick, overhanging trees. Only a few
minutes elapsed between detectio n and destruction. No other nation has this