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What it’s like to fly a U-2 spy plane for 125 days, says pilot

  • For more than 60 years, the top-flight U-2 has been collecting intelligence on hot spots around the world.
  • During this time, however, only one active-duty pilot exceeded 3,000 flight hours aboard the much-vaunted Dragon Lady.
  • Here’s what it takes to reach that milestone, according to the pilot who made it.

When US Air Force pilot Lt. Col. “Jethro” first heard of the U-2, he was determined to enroll in the highly selective training program.

Piloting the much-vaunted “Dragon Lady” meant flying “in a single-seater, at high altitude, wearing the spacesuit, alone, unarmed and fearless, several miles from your base,” he told Insider.

Lt. Col. “Jethro” – his call sign, an alias used for security – has completed the training program and landed his dream job as a U-2 pilot. It is a distinction that only 1,079 people have earned.

U-2 pilot

Lt. Col. Jethro after becoming the second pilot to achieve 3000 hours in the active duty U-2 at Beale Air Force Base on September 29, 2021.

US Air Force / Senior Airman Jason W. Cochran

After 10 deployments between 2007 and 2018, Jethro became an instructor pilot with the 1st Reconnaissance Squadron, which is responsible for training all U-2 pilots.

Today, he trains the new group of U-2 Airmen at Beale Air Force Base in Calif., Putting them through the same rigorous program he followed 15 years ago.

In September, Jethro became the second pilot in history to achieve 3,000 hours of U-2 piloting – and the first to do so on active duty.

He told Insider about his milestone flight and what it was like spending the equivalent of 125 days piloting the U-2.

‘It never gets old’

U-2 Dragon Lady California Sierra Nevada

A U-2 over the Sierra Nevada Mountains in California, March 23, 2016.

US Air Force / Sgt. Robert M. Trujillo

The jet frequently flies at around 70,000 feet, which provides a unique view of the curve of the earth.

“It’s weird because your eyes are so used to seeing the flat horizon that you kind of have to step back and look at it and say, ‘Hey, it’s curved,’” he says. “It’s absolutely beautiful. It never gets old.”

But 70,000 feet is also found above the Armstrong Line, where water boils at body temperature and life is not sustainable, requiring not only a pressurized cockpit, but also a suit to bulky full pressure similar to that which astronauts use on shuttle missions.

Dressing to fly in the Lockheed U-2 is about as close as a pilot can come to dressing for a space mission.

But a suit that keeps you alive without pressure – and allows both male and female pilots to urinate in mid-flight – isn’t easy to put on. For this, Jethro and other U-2 pilots have dedicated physiological support squadron technicians.

Pilot pressure suit U-2

Airmen from the 9th Physiological Support Squadron assist Lt. Col. Jethro in his pressure suit, Sept. 29, 2021.

US Air Force / Senior Airman Jason W. Cochran

Technicians treat flight suits with the same attention maintenance technicians give to their aircraft. Watching new U-2 interns working with physiological support technicians to get in and out of the suit can be awkward and comical.

“It’s a dance, and the first time you do it, you have no idea how this dance works,” Jethro explains.

Once it has adjusted, it is moved to a large reclining chair and connected to oxygen and cooling air. It can get hot and tight in the swollen suit. Climbing the ladder on the plane and sitting down is another dance, as U-2 pilots cannot buckle up in the cockpit while wearing the suit and still need help from the technicians.

Technicians also handle pilots’ food orders and preferred color before Gatorade takes off. Their in-flight meals are mashed and come in a metal toothpaste-style tube for easy use.

“We are on a diet that is high in protein and low in residue,” Jethro said. “You don’t want to be gaseous up there. As the pressure drops, the gas expands, which can make you uncomfortable in the jet.”

3000 hours with the Lady of the Dragon

U-2 pilot in the cockpit

Jethro does pre-flight checklists in a U-2 on September 29, 2021.

US Air Force / Senior Airman Jason W. Cochran

The United States has used the U-2 for more than half a century, flying intelligence missions over the Soviet Union, Vietnam, China and Cuba during the Cold War. In recent years, he has conducted missions in Iraq and Afghanistan. It is designed to fly around the clock and in any weather.

The U-2 received technical improvements, but the basic cockpit hasn’t changed much over the past 40 years.

The fact that iPads and advanced navigation technology are replacing maps and paper maps is probably the biggest difference since Jethro’s early days. Before this tech upgrade, “you were lucky if you knew where you were,” he says.

The east Texas native joined ROTC at college to pursue his childhood dream of becoming a pilot. He began training two months after Sept. 11, 2001, made his first solo flight in 2002, and was well on his way to flying a larger aircraft, like the C-135 Stratolifter.

When he graduated as a pilot, he still wasn’t sure what he wanted to fly. His squadron commander and mentor, who was a U-2 pilot, suggested the U-2. From there, Jethro did a Google search for the U-2 pilot app and began the arduous training and selection process.

U-2 pilot

Jethro in a U-2 at Beale Air Force Base, September 29, 2021.

US Air Force / Senior Airman Jason W. Cochran

The training program is selective. Candidates who pass a two-week interview move on to training in a T-38 Talon, a two-seat supersonic jet trainer. After that, the remaining candidates move on to training in a real U-2, learning how to fly, land, and perform emergency procedures.

The students’ seventh flight is their first solo time in a U-2. This is followed by high altitude training with the spacesuit, Jethro said.

After 14 flights, the pilots go through an assessment. Passing that means you are qualified on the U-2, and “then we send you on a qual[ification] – another program where now that you know how to fly it, you know how to beat threats, ”he added.“ When you’re done with that, you are [a] qualified pilot ready to hit the road. “

In 2007, as a newly qualified U-2 pilot, Jethro was deployed for the first time. Stationed at Al Dhafra Air Base in the United Arab Emirates, he flew missions over Iraq and Afghanistan.

Flying in the desert, he accumulated his first 1,000 hours in three years. Some of these missions involved talking to ground resources and making decisions while flying over ruthless terrain far from home, outside of the base’s radio range.

He recalls a cloudy day mission over Afghanistan in August 2007 when two separate helicopters crashed about 100 miles apart. He began talking to downed pilots and joined the effort to retrieve them, coordinating with an F-15 to ward off the enemy.

A pilot and teamwork

U-2 pursuit car take off

Cory Bartholomew helps a U-2 take off at Beale Air Force Base, March 23, 2021.

US Air Force / Airman 1st Class Luis A. Ruiz-Vazquez

The U-2 is a difficult plane to fly and even harder to land. The aircraft’s 105-foot wingspan is perfect for flying high but not too close to the ground.

The U-2 was also disassembled in order to fly at high altitudes for long periods of time – its bicycle-like landing gear is supplemented by wheels mounted on wings that detach during take-off. The position of the pilot in the cockpit also makes it more difficult to see the runway on approach.

These factors mean that it takes a lot of physical effort from the pilot to land, as well as the coordination of an entire team to land the aircraft on the ground.

Another U-2 pilot in a pursuit car gives instructions over the radio as the returning pilot approaches the runway. Once the plane comes to a stop, now without its wheels mounted on the wings, it tilts to one side.

Pressure suit for U-2 instructor pilots

Cory Bartholomew, right, presents Jethro with the 3,000 hour patch at Beale Air Force Base on September 29, 2021.

US Air Force / Senior Airman Jason W. Cochran

By the time Jethro landed at Beale to conclude a routine proficiency flight on September 29, he had reached 3000 hours.

He would have settled for a discreet beer after the flight to celebrate the milestone. But his squadron showed it, stepping out of their plane and cheering. His wife and children were also present to congratulate him, his fellow U-2 instructor pilot, Cory Bartholomew, and the base wing commander, who had also participated in Jethro’s very first deployment.

They offer him a bottle of champagne and, according to tradition, challenge him to throw the cork on the top of the hangar with one foot on the ground and the other on the ladder to the cockpit of the parked plane. .

“I’m awful at that level,” he said. “I haven’t touched the hangar yet.”