The world was stunned when Francis Gary Powers was downed over the Former Soviet Union flying the Lockheed U-2 in 1960. In context, the U.S. has conducted more than 50,000 such ‘surveillance’ flights since WWII, using aircraft carrying national colors and designations (U.S. Air Force, Navy, etc.), flying ‘mostly’ in international airspace. The U-2 was an unmarked spy plane. Dangerous stuff. I can’t say more: this arena remains highly classified.
The CIA, who commissioned the U-2 in 1955, and its brilliant designer Kelly Johnson at Lockheed’s ‘Skunk Works’ in Burbank, California, thought its ability to fly high would keep it safe. True, for a while.
The Soviets knew it was there, from their radar. They bagged it with SAMs—surface-to-air missiles. While learning, they downed some of their own fighters attempting interception via dive/pull-up/Keplerian zoom. They didn’t care. In the FSU, as in today’s Russia, people are expendable, objects of the State. Similar U.S. tests showed the F-106 as the best interceptor. One tumbled past the U-2’s nose at high (classified) altitude, taking tens of thousands of feet to recover. Fresh underwear, please.
Secrets don’t keep. As details leaked, the U-2 intrigued the world. Its height capability (still classified) and endurance (~12 hours) stunned insiders. Everyone wondered about its design, performance and flight characteristics. As a pilot with thousands of hours in sailplanes (gliders much like the U-2—high-aspect-ratio wings, but no noisy fire hazard), I was curious. I act on my curiosities.
“U-2: Geopolitical/military past and technological/aerospace present mix in the imagination. What is it? Complex, high-altitude observation system that happens to be an airplane? Demonstration of Lockheed’s skills? Powered sailplane? All the above. Pilots worldwide wonder about this mystical beast . . . ”
That’s how my report started, words to accompany my photos taken at Beale AFB, near Sacramento, California, and in the cockpit, very (classified) high. I had that elixir, an ‘exclusive:’ first photojournalist to fly, photograph and write about one of the world’s most famous yet mysterious aircraft. I was in aviation and journalism heaven . . . very high.
One of freelancing’s rare joys is unearthing and controlling a scoop—if you’re lucky, properly connected, with a cooperative editor. How did I get into that cockpit, assigned by a major world publication?
I called the U.S. Air Force Strategic Air Command (SAC) in Omaha, Nebraska. Connected to Public Affairs—they treat polite journalists kindly—I asked to fly, write about and photograph their U-2. They said they’d consider it; they didn’t say ‘no’ and they extended hope. A definite ‘maybe.’
I called the managing editor: “SAC is considering my request.” He said he’d review my story and pix. I conveyed that conditional acceptance to SAC. I had the matched set. I reported to Beale AFB, checked into the BOQ and talked to U-2 and SR-71 pilots of the 9th Strategic Air Wing that evening at the bar. Great stories. They love to fly. But . . . intimidating.
Next morning, after the traditional high-protein/low-bulk breakfast, flight physiology conducted a medical. Approved, my instructor, astronaut-in-embryo CAPT Denny Gagen, USAF, indoctrinated me in this difficult, fascinating airplane. I noted the central, bicycle landing gear with tiny wheels, much like a sailplane, the untwisted wing that stalls from root to tip, right now, without warning, though tiny leading-edge ‘bumps’ give a warning burble at critical airspeed. An unforgiving piece.
The proposed flight was briefed. Laced into a pressure suit, I pre-breathed O2 for an hour to avoid the ‘bends’—a risk after sudden decompression, when nitrogen in the blood creates bubbles at the joints that deliver excruciating pain. We rode in a van, carrying portable O2 units, and strapped into the two-seat CT-2. Final checklist. Engine startup, taxi in waddling gait on the bicycle gear, wings supported by ‘pogo’ outriggers.
Takeoff: rotate at 85 knots and pull up to 60° for climbout, the Pratt & Whitney J-75 producing a reliable 17,000 pounds thrust without afterburner. As we rotate, the ‘pogo’ wheels fall from their sockets for ground-crew recovery.
Three hours over the Sierra. It flies like a sailplane: smooth, easy, needs rudder to coordinate, non-assisted controls. The airframe is fragile. Don’t ‘pull’ more than ~2G, though higher-G gusts can be tolerated in updrafts. At maximum altitude, the ‘window’ between departure (stall) and tuck is two knots. So: a gentle hand on the yoke, meticulous airspeed control.
Landing is a challenge: energy management is crucial. Fly a flat approach: this bird floats in ground effect. We approach at stall speed +10%, not stall +25% fighters use. Another U-2 pilot, alongside in a pickup, calls altitude and attitude, ensuring touchdown at correct, two-point attitude: “Two feet, nose high; one foot, on attitude; touchdown.” Though back from near space, I will never come down from this flight.
The late Ernest Gann, a renowned flying writer, got into that cockpit years later. I scooped him. Hold the applause. I was lucky. SAC accepted me because it was no longer TOP SECRET. They processed my film and kept some photos; they knew that a huge pilot audience would read the piece as potential recruits; the magazine took my exclusive.
Why not name the publication where my original article appeared? Because, when I asked permission to excerpt my own text, they demanded a fee larger than the pittance they paid me to write it. Such sweet people. So this article uses none of my original material. Imagine violating a copyright by plagiarizing oneself!