High Fliers (My Time as a U-2 Pilot)

The USAF's U-2 aircraft, a product of Lockheed's


Pretty neat image, huh? I actually got to fly missions in that thing. Yes, it’s a U-2 spyplane; we referred to it as the “Dragonlady.” The saying went, you had to learn to fight with the dragon before you could dance with the lady. It was a joy to fly, but more so than any other airplane, it always demanded attention, especially in the landing phase. Speed control was paramount, and yes, it was a taildragger. A 40,000-pound taildragger with bicycle landing gear.

It was a unique arrangement, that demanded you fly the thing to a stop, and even after stopping, you could still fly the wings with 10 knots of wind. And taxiing, well, that’s another story! A 200-foot turn radius with a tailwheel that only steers six degrees requires a lot of room … and some unique methods of weight distribution to ensure wingtip clearance. At one of our locations with very little taxiway clearance, we had to remove the pogo (an additional wheel midway under the wing used only for taxiing) from one side and put the wing completely over the grass. This required special counterbalancing weights to keep the other wing down, and the weights we used were human! It was always a special occasion, and we even handed out certificates to the lucky individuals, most often British nurses at one of our classified locations that happened to have a large military hospital. Possibly our most popular TDY location of all!

Still Doing the Job

I flew the U-2 from 1987 to 1991. It is still being flown on a daily basis, flying missions around the world. When I reflect on the planning I used to participate in for “the big one” and the routes we would fly after the nukes had dropped, and then think about how I ended up flying 727s into Moscow just a few years later, I am astounded. I recall my first time actually flying a 727 into Russia, and feeling very vulnerable without a RAW (Radar Attack Warning) scope or ECM (Electronic Counter Measure) gear! What an amazing era we’ve (luckily) lived through.

A quick history of the U-2: It was developed in the early ’50s in Lockheed’s Burbank, Calif., “Skunk Works” under the supervision of Clarence “Kelly” Johnson, an aeronautical designer genius. At that time, nothing could touch it, until, as you may recall, on May 1, 1960, one was shot down over Russia, and the pilot, Francis Gary Powers, was taken prisoner. That event is still shrouded in mystery.

A lot of our policies changed after that, and improvements were made. We did learn, however, that in certain situations we were vulnerable, and we learned how to improve our chances of survival. The U-2s that are flying today are much improved over the first versions, and are actually 67 percent larger. The line started with “A” models; they’re up to “S” models now. The latest ones came off the assembly line in 1989 and were recently re-engined with the B-2 turbofan engine. There’s even talk of reopening the production line. Unmanned reconnaissance and satellites are effective for what they do, but there will always be a need for a manned reconnaissance airplane. It’s hard to find an argument against a successful platform like the U-2.


The training program starts with the selection process. Less than a third of all applicants ever get selected to fly it, and even then you are still susceptible to washing out of the program. It was unusual in the Air Force in that it wasn’t a black mark on your record if you washed out; not everyone was cut out to fly the thing. I mean, who would want to spend ten hours or more sealed up in a spacesuit, flying in a cramped cockpit, at over 70,000 feet, with the threat of enemy missiles locking on to you. Not to mention the ever-present threat of a flameout of the lone engine and the resultant diversion to another base. A lot of good pilots weren’t selected, and they returned to their units and simply got another assignment.

But, once you were selected for an interview, you got to go to Beale AFB for a two-week tryout. The first week was all interviews with the commanders and other pilots. The second week consisted of actually flying the two-seat model to see if you could land it.

Yes, it did fly like a glider, but remember, it’s a taildragger, and she needed to remind you of that continually! When I interviewed I was a T-37 instructor pilot with about 2,000 hours experience. But what really helped me out was that I had recently checked out in a Great Lakes biplane. That was the best preparation for the interview I could ever recommend. Maybe a Pitts would have been better, but one wasn’t available.

At altitude, the plane flew like a dream. Granted, you still had to watch your airspeed. With only a few knots between a stall and Mach buffet you could find yourself between a rock and a hard place really fast. (Yes, we did have an autopilot, but you still needed to watch it closely. Imagine trying to fly an ILS for nine hours…) As I mentioned, it flew very well, and was very maneuverable in the thin air. Our altitude and maneuverability (combined with some powerful ECM jammers) gave us an edge against our foes, both airborne and ground-based. We routinely flew in dangerous parts of the world, but for the most part we had a lot of support. Sometimes, though, we were entirely on our own, just an airplane with a camera. And the best part was we didn’t have to talk to anybody. Boy do I miss that! As a pilot for a major airline, I have to talk to everybody now, except when I’m piloting my Cessna VFR.

My Favorite Story About Not Talking to ATC (Do NOT Try This at Home!)

Shortly after Saddam went on his little adventure, we were tasked to fly some of our aircraft to Saudi Arabia. I had the opportunity to take one of our prototype birds (worth a cool $250 million in 1990 dollars) across the pond and then on to Saudi. It was my first time flying across the Atlantic, not to mention my first time solo over there. (Don’t know if my commanders knew that; I didn’t volunteer that information at the time.) Anyway, that trip across the Atlantic was fun, and the next leg from England to Saudi Arabia was even more challenging.

It started with an INS (Inertial Navigation System) glitch that I finally figured out somewhere over the English channel. Probably should have aborted for it, but I was in the go-mode. Once I got that straightened out, I figured I could make it all the way. But it sure was distracting. As I approached the coast of France, I couldn’t raise ATC on UHF or VHF. I was given a special code word to transmit if I had any difficulty with them, and I would have used it if they had only answered me. But they didn’t want to talk to me so I motored on. In the bargain, though, I got a great view of Paris from 70,000 feet.

The problems started after I coasted out of France over the Mediterranean. I turned my transponder off when I passed by Libya and got a nasty call from Malta when I was right overhead. After I responded, the controller seemed very pleased to hold a conversation with me on guard frequency, and announce to the world what he showed for my altitude on his height-finding radar. Oh well, so much for classified altitude!

By the time I got to Egypt, I guess I had upset the French so much they pulled my flight plan (this was a legitimate ferry flight, so we played by the ATC rules) and Cairo center wouldn’t let me pass until I told them who I was, where I was going, and where I was from. My answers were, “Classified. Classified. Classified.” They were not amused…

After being airborne for about eight hours, I wasn’t in the best mood to argue, but I discussed my predicament with the controller for about 10 minutes and refused to give away information he didn’t need to know. I think I just wore him down. He finally gave me one more chance to come clean. I told him my destination was still classified and he didn’t understand. In a flash of inspiration/frustration, I just started spelling out “classified” phonetically and he let me pass. He’s probably still trying to figure it out. I really don’t know what I would have done if he’d pressed the issue. If I diverted to Cairo, I’d probably still be there, trying to explain!

Miller Time!

As you may know from experience or hearsay, the military is bound by tradition, and the U-2 community is no exception. Even though all U-2 students were aircraft commanders in their previous assignments (only experienced pilots could apply), soloing the aircraft was, and still is, a big occasion. After about six rides in the two-seat version, they set you loose to take one around the pattern for a few bounce and goes. If you come through without groundlooping, you’re brought back to the squadron Heritage Room (formerly known as “Bar”) and invited to imbibe a yard of your favorite beverage.

Of course we didn’t condone alcohol use, but we did keep records of how quickly and efficiently a yard of ale could be finished, and those records were routinely broken. In the bottom of the yard of ale was placed the coveted solo pin. The trick of course, was to finish off the ale, without swallowing the pin. It was the last trial to be won before you could call yourself a U-2 driver.

After a few more solo flights, most of them high-altitude, you were sent on your first TDY, or Temporary Duty, to go keep tabs on the bad guys. Before I suited up for my first mission, my PSD (Physiological Support Division) team asked me what kind of beer I drank. I thought it was a joke, and they were going to label one of my Gatorade bottles with a Carlsberg label. The PSD technicians were the last people we saw before we suited up for a mission. They were the critical link to life support, as they took care of our suits, taught us how to use them, suited us up and kept us company for the required one hour of pure oxygen pre-breathing needed to avoid decompression sickness at altitude. And we liked to party with them. So we all got along very well.

And much to my surprise, I was handed a frosty cold one as soon as they opened the cockpit after my first mission. That made it very special, and I’ll never forget the extra attention everybody gave us on mission days. It took so much effort by so many people just to launch a single U-2. Everyone took their job very seriously and gave it their all. For that, I was very grateful.

Always Good to Be Home

Once we completed our first tour of duty at a TDY base, we were considered fully checked out and we could get any TDY location that was available at the time. The usual schedule was two months away, then two months home, which gave us just enough time to get reacquainted with our families, put out the fires at home, and finish all of our currency requirements. We were dual-qualified in the T-38 as well as the U-2, and we had to get so many approaches, landings, and practice emergency procedures in each aircraft each quarter, so we stayed pretty busy flying, not to mention all the additional duties the Air Force loved to lavish on its people.

I think Northern California has some of the best flying in the world, especially considering the range of flying we did. Whether it was a T-38 low-level over the Feather River Canyon, aerobatics in the MOAs or a high-altitude sortie over the Pacific Northwest, the scenery was awesome. And of course, we also flew a T-38 route (Oceanview) that took us over the coast, down south towards San Francisco, and if we asked really nice and the controllers weren’t too busy, we could drop down and get the Bay Tour.

It was always a special treat to fly at home. But, it seems that, just as you finished your requirements, along came orders for your next TDY. Off again to some exotic locale. Where to this time? Back to Korea or a classified Mediterranean Island? Wherever the assignment, we were sure to get a little more responsibility, such as the “camera-only” missions where the only onboard equipment was the camera, and we’d just go take pictures and not have to talk to anyone. I got to see some parts of the world I’d never seen before, but judging by the activity on the RAW scope, I didn’t really surprise anybody.

Back to Work

Seeing your RAW scope activate the first time can be a little unnerving, unless you view it as a game. Reconnaissance is not the same as “spying” and is a necessary part of keeping the peace. But most governments would beg to differ and used us as a target to test their capabilities. Prior to each mission we were given an intel briefing on what to expect and the extent of the threat, and most of the time it was very benign. So you know when you got “lit up” that you probably weren’t going to be face to face with a SAM that day.

By the time I was deployed to Saudi Arabia for Desert Shield, I was probably lulled into a false sense of security. That’s when I received an attack warning from the other side of the border. I just thought it was an Iraqi SAM site testing its radar, but as it turned out it was a new site that had been previously unaccounted for, so it made a lot of people upset when I returned and told them about it. I was upset, too!

Fortunately, I got to go home before the war started, and somehow managed to get the choice Mediterranean TDY for the duration of the Gulf War. I still flew missions in support of Desert Storm, but didn’t have to survive the Spartan conditions my brothers in the desert tolerated. And, I got my favorite Carlsberg beverage at the end of every mission … something that was definitely lacking in the desert! Of course, they got the combat sorties and all the medals, but since I was separating from the service anyway, I didn’t need that to advance my career.

And I had a run of extremely good luck; I figured it was time to quit while I was ahead. We were all very lucky during the years I flew the airplane: No one crashed or was shot down, and the only incidents were minor, such as the occasional groundloop or hard landing (none of them mine, thankfully). And, thankfully, no U-2 was shot down during the Gulf War.

But the Dragonlady, temperamental beast that she is, has claimed a few of her pilots in the years since, and on a recent visit back to Beale AFB, it was sobering to see portraits of two of my friends and former U-2 brothers, along with two others who had joined the program after I left, adorning the wall of the Heritage Room. They will all be missed. The nature of our flying and deployments makes us a very tight-knit group, and our bonds tended to be a lot stronger than in follow-on assignments. Even our spouses have stayed in touch with each other.

I recently returned to celebrate a friend’s retirement, and was able to show my daughter my name and date of solo, along with the other 600 or so pilots who have accomplished that feat. There sure were a lot of names added after mine.

Nowadays I’m content to drive a 727 around the skies, cruising at half the altitude I used to fly. Things look a lot bigger down here, and we have to go around thunderstorms instead of climbing over them. But it’s still fun for me; I guess that’s why I started flying in the first place. And I seem to get the most fun out of flying my family around in my Cessna, and I look forward to doing that for a long time. But I’ve found that I can (almost) always pique another pilot’s interest when I tell them what I flew in the Air Force. Everyone wants to know what it was like flying higher than almost any other airplane in the world. There were a few who managed to fly higher than us, such as the SR-71, but still only a handful of pilots ever get much above FL390, much less FL700.

It’s a unique fraternity, but by all means not exclusive. Hey, they let me fly it!