Flying to the edge of space.
As I slipped open the sunshade of my spacesuit, I could see that the sky above was black. The curved white and blue earth fell away below the horizon. Sailing like Icarus past 70,000 feet, I was now the 11th highest human on earth (ISS & Soyuz astronauts would solidly hold the top-10 that afternoon). Noticeably absent any trace of sound and fury, we were silently flying through the upper atmosphere in what amounted to large black wing, aptly named the U-2 Dragon Lady. Just in below and in front of me, the master of this craft, Lt. Colonel Joe “Tucc” Santucci, aptly coaxed our dragon higher and higher, trying to get every last foot of altitude. “She’s given us all she can today,” said Tucc, my pilot and the Commander of the 99th Reconnaissance Squadron, as we leveled off past 70K. The glass around my canopy was beginning to freeze over – the combination of extreme cold (70 degrees below zero) and the vapor from my (likely rapid) breath. It was an ethereal feeling to be floating among ice crystals reflecting the bright sunlight on the edge of space. A wave of melancholy washed over me as I realized that this moment would be one of the highlights of my life; unlikely to be ever repeated. Not so for “Tucc” and the 56 U-2 pilots actively flying today. Although a once-in-a-lifetime experience for me, this was their job, regularly flying 10- to 12-hour missions all over the world.
Walking the halls of the 99th, one can’t help but feel transported back to the early 1960s. Walls are lined with faded, iconic photographs of U-2 & SR-71 pilots standing in pressure suits in front of their aircraft. I was there to go on a “High Flight” with Colonel Santucci. At 38, Santucci doesn’t look his age. Always with a smile on his face, Tucc isn’t typical in any way. First, he’s brilliant. He holds two master’s degrees and is about to complete his Ph.D. He was just awarded the Koren Kolligian Jr. Trophy for outstanding achievement in airmanship and flying proficiency by the Chief of Staff of the Air Force. He can seamlessly transition in conversation from economics to engine performance. I was lucky to be flying with him.
When I was first offered the opportunity to fly in the U-2, I must admit that I was surprised that they were still flying. A true credit to the vision of Lockheed’s Kelly Johnson, this once-Top Secret aircraft has outlasted even its replacement, the SR-71. First flown in 1955, the U-2 was designed to perform high-altitude surveillance over unfriendly nations, primarily the former Soviet Union. Operating under the cover story of conducting “weather research,” everything about this black CIA program was above Top Secret. The mission characteristics were clear: to be successful, the plane would have to fly high enough to be safe from surface-to-air missiles and enemy aircraft. The aircraft would also have to be able to capture high-resolution imagery of large swaths of territory. Hence, the “Utility-2” was born. Essentially a high-powered glider, the U-2 would fly higher and longer than any aircraft before it.
Originally a joint CIA–Air Force program, aircraft flew missions throughout the world gathering overhead imagery and signal intelligence. In many cases, countries like the Soviet Union knew we were overflying their territory—they just couldn’t do very much about it. Not much could yet reach 70,000 feet, and those that could would always fall far short of the mark. Over the years, the Soviets lost countless pilots (and rockets) as they tried desperately to destroy these aircraft. In what today seems inevitable, the Soviets would eventually succeed. On 1 May 1960, Francis Gary Powers took off from Peshawar, Pakistan, on a mission to photograph ICBM sites near Sverdlovsk. More than halfway through the mission, the first of three SA-2 Guideline missiles impacted Powers’ U-2, codenamed Article 360. Fortunately, Powers survived but failed to activate the aircraft’s self-destruct mechanism. Article 360 is still on display at the Central Armed Forces Museum in Moscow.
Fifty years later, the U-2 remains the world’s highest-flying conventional airplane. The SR-71 flew its last flight in 1999, retired because its logistical costs (massive refueling operations) exceeded its speed/altitude benefits in a new world of precision satellite imagery. Meanwhile, the Dragon Lady persevered despite enduring rumors of her demise. The latest U-2 (S variant) came off the production line in 1981. Since then, she’s received a glass cockpit and new optical and signals sensors. She also continues to use an upgraded version of the original film OBC (optical bar camera) and synthetic aperture radar. The OBC utilizes a spool containing 2.5 miles of high-quality film. With the ability to image 107,000 nautical miles at high resolution, its capability remains unmatched. Digital imagery and signal-intelligence data can also be transmitted during collection. U-2 pilots are often talking directly to the troops on the ground, allowing missions to be adapted to real-time warfighter needs. According to the UK Times Online, “the U2 has acquired a reputation in Afghanistan for spotting bombs that the ground patrols might miss.” Gone are the days of isolated pilots operating secretly in the stratosphere.
Today, the two primary U-2 squadrons are located at Beale Air Force Base near Sacramento, California. The 99th Reconnaissance Squadron is the nation’s operational squadron, providing pilots for other U-2 squadrons located in Asia and the Middle East. Sharing the same building with the 99th is the 1st Reconnaissance Squadron, where new and returning pilots train. I had the opportunity to meet many of these high-fliers; they weren’t what I expected. First, there is a quiet confidence to these pilots. Most are not “jet jockeys”—they mainly hail from longer-hull, fixed-wing aircraft like C-130s. Those aircraft share more flight characteristics with the U-2 than their more tactical cousins like the F-15. No one gets assigned to be a U-2 pilot; they all apply and come for a two-week interview. Most don’t make it. The pilots are also unusual in that many have been there for a long, long time. Unlike traditional aviators who rotate around the Air Force, the U-2 community seems more like an order of flying monks, dedicated to the perfection of high-altitude flight. And I was going to get the opportunity to spend a week with these warrior-monks.
Before getting the chance to fly, I had to undergo a day of physical checks and training, mainly run by the extremely professional 9th Physiological Support Squadron (PSPTS). During an intense couple of days, we discussed mundane topics like how to eject at 70,000 feet, eat tube-food at altitude, survive explosive decompression, and evade enemy patrols. I’ll spare you the details on bathroom use in a pressure suit—suffice it to say that it is a major topic of conversation among high-fliers.
The day of my flight, I was to meet Colonel Santucci and Major Chris “Ralphie” Hanshaw at 8 a.m. for a “low residue” breakfast of steak and eggs. Ralphie was a former F-14 Navy pilot, who switched services when the venerable Tomcat was retired. He’s the head of operations for the 1st and would be assisting Tucc and me in our high flight today. Ralphie was both the backup pilot and “mobile” for our flight. Unique to the U-2 community was the concept of a pilot in a souped-up Pontiac GTO with cop lights chasing behind U-2s on all take-offs and landings. Akin to the Navy’s landing signal officers, mobiles provide pilots critical landing instructions. As a Navy guy, I was delighted to have a shipmate helping out.
After a detailed flight brief, we headed off to PSPTS to suit up. After changing into long underwear, I met with a flight medic for a brief exam that included detailed questions on my sleep history and diet over the past 24 hours. I then selected my “tube” food and drink for the short 2.5-hour flight (a healthy choice of chocolate pudding and Gatorade). I emerged from the changing room into what at first glance appeared to be a 1960s-era lounge—treadmills in the back, six La-Z-Boy loungers, and a flat panel TV. On the floor were two spacesuits, especially prepared for donning. It looked exactly like my recollection of the NASA prep rooms from TV. One of the PSPTS technicians asked me if I was ready and led me over to the treadmill. I was to work out for 10 minutes on 100 percent oxygen in a time-honored pre-breathing exercise to outgas nitrogen. Decompression sickness is a very real threat for U-2 pilots, requiring them to pre-breathe for one hour prior to flight. Tucc and I were running alongside each other and would not be able to communicate again until we were strapped into the plane.
Following my brief workout, two technicians began the 30-minute process of getting me into the pressure suit. The La-Z-Boys weren’t there for fun; they were there to allow PSPTS techs to be able to correctly fit and test the pressure suit. They also helped keep the pilot’s core temperature from rising too quickly. It was then that I began to realize how helpless I was in the suit. The technicians did everything for us, including walking with us and carrying our portable oxygen systems. As a rule, I’m not claustrophobic, but as they attached my space helmet, I felt the first twitches of anxiety. Santucci looked over at me in his spacesuit and gave me the thumbs up.
We were then led into a van, two of the same brown lounges in back for the short ride to the aircraft. Everything was silent except for the Darth Vader–like sound of my breathing. I’d been briefed on the pre-flight traditions of the U-2. After we arrived, I was led out of the van and saw our U-2 for the first time—63 feet long, matte black with an enormous 103-foot wingspan. In front of this elegant lady stood three of the ground crew at attention. I followed Santucci up to the nose of the aircraft, which we touched for good luck. We then saluted and shook hands with each of the ground crew. Ralphie was also there, and in keeping with tradition, he received a fist-bump. I was then led to the rear cockpit of the aircraft. As I was strapped in, I thought about how many professionals it took to get this aircraft in the air. This wasn’t about one pilot or one plane—it was a team effort. The salutes were warranted; in every respect, it was their flight as much as it was ours.
“ICS check,” came over the intercom. They were the first words I’d heard in over an hour. “Loud and Clear, Tucc,” I said in the most professional aviator voice I could muster while my spacesuit was being rapidly inflated and deflated by the technicians testing the pressurization system. I checked that I could reach the ejection handle and “green apple” control for the emergency oxygen system. Normally these would be straightforward, but in a pressure suit, everything is difficult.
After receiving taxi clearance, we rolled out to the runway. My primary task at this point was to reach down and remove the two pins to my ejection seat and the one pin to arm the explosive canopy-removal system. After some strained reaches, I was able to remove the pins. Off to my right, I could see Ralphie in the GTO saluting Tucc. “Ready to go?” said Tucc as he slowly advanced the throttle of the U-2’s General Electric F118-GE-10 engine. After about two seconds, I could see one of the two “pogos” (wing gear) fall away from the aircraft, leaving us with just fore-and-aft bicycle gear along the fuselage. On the U-2, every pound saved means more altitude. In a gutsy move, Kelly Johnson designed the aircraft to leave half the landing gear on the runway at takeoff—it would certainly make for an exciting landing.
We were airborne in no time and Tucc said, “Prepare for the pull” as the nose of the aircraft lifted nearly straight up. We were in a 15,000-feet-per-minute climb. Despite the high angle of attack, it was an extremely smooth ride. For the first time since I donned the spacesuit, I felt at home and, surprisingly, comfortable.
We began a slow left turn that would take us on our route around Northern California. At 25,000 feet, the rate of ascent slowed as we began our gradual climb to 70,000 feet. Tucc and I were talking quite fluidly at this point; we had left the topic of flight characteristics of a large winged aircraft to discuss Greek philosophy. He was an intellectual and a warfighter, and I was thinking how lucky we are as a nation to have such remarkable people serving today.
I looked down at the altimeter and saw that we were passing 65,000 feet. The cockpit was silent for a few moments allowing me time to reflect on the moment. I could see the blackness of the sky enveloping us. The curvature of the Earth was clearly pronounced as we leveled off at just above 70,000 feet. “Look out to your left,” said Tucc. Treasure Island and Oakland were clearly visible beyond the high clouds. I smiled as I thought about a Cold War–era U-2 spy-plane flying over the campus of the University of California–Berkeley.
Two hours had passed in the blink of an eye. We started our turn to the north to begin the long descent back to Beale. Slowly the altimeter clicked down as we initiated the landing checklist. “Mobile, Pinion 07,” said Tucc, trying to reach Ralphie on the squadron frequency using our flight callsign. Ralphie answered right up saying he was ready to go. He’d be standing by in the GTO just off the runway to give Tucc landing instructions. I knew U-2 landings were notoriously difficult; many consider it to be the most difficult aircraft to land in the world. We passed the landing threshold at 10 feet and at 80 knots, the cockpit absolutely quiet as the yoke moved dramatically as Santucci worked the landing. He would have to actually stall the aircraft over the runway to land the airplane. We set down quite smoothly and, in a first for me, the wing touched the ground as we slowed. The wingtips have titanium skids for this very reason. As we slowed to a stop, the ground crew reattached the pogos and we resumed our taxi to base operations. “Nice landing, Tucc,” I said. In his typical self-deprecating manner, Santucci calmly replied, “I wish I could communicate how hard that was.” In the U-2, every landing is hard.
As we taxied in, I removed my gloves, popped the airlock on my helmet, re-pinned the ejection seat, and looked around. I could see that a small crowd was gathered at base operations to greet us. As we pulled up and stopped, the ground crew attached the ladder, opened the canopy, unstrapped us and unhooked our umbilicals. I slowly climbed out of the aircraft—and was promptly handed a bottle of champagne by the Wing Commander, Colonel “Pickle” McGillicuddy. Tucc and I stood at the bottom of the ladder as I popped the cork and we both took turns drinking. For me, flying in the Dragon Lady was the highlight of my life. For Tucc and his fellow pilots, it was just another Thursday. Photos here