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The Letter U, and the Numeral 2
May 12, 2010 8:10 AM   Subscribe

Reconnaissance will outlive the U-2, but there will always be a divot in the hearts of those who have seen the curvature of the earth, the stars seemingly close enough to touch, and known the satisfaction of having completed a mission with the Dragon Lady. Former U-2 pilot and military correspondent Cholene Espinoza writes a lovely adieu to these beautiful, difficult-to-fly aircraft, as well as a requiem for the era of human pilots for surveillance, giving way now to UAVs and other remote-control drones. The U-2 is, amazingly, still in service, but apparently soon to be grounded -- or not -- half-a-century after Francis Gary Powers' little Cold War incident. [Previously]
posted by chavenet (36 comments total) 17 users marked this as a favorite

 
I'm not following why they name a trophy given for "outstanding feats of skill, alertness, ingenuity or proficiency that avert an accident or minimize the severity of the mishap" after a guy who vanished on a training flight.
posted by falcon at 8:22 AM on May 12, 2010 [1 favorite]


Top Gear's James May takes a ride in the U2
posted by zeoslap at 8:39 AM on May 12, 2010 [7 favorites]


The Thrill of Flying the SR-71 Blackbird
posted by homunculus at 8:41 AM on May 12, 2010


> I'm not following why they name a trophy ... after a guy who vanished on a training flight.

It's a persistent reminder of what could happen if you screw it up again.
posted by ardgedee at 8:43 AM on May 12, 2010


My grandfather flew one of these 50 years ago. He donated one of the gloves he used to the Smithsonian, the thumb has a hole worn through it from pressing the camera button IIRC
posted by p3on at 8:53 AM on May 12, 2010 [3 favorites]


zeoslap you beat me to to it. That is such a awesome video
posted by ShawnString at 8:53 AM on May 12, 2010


I'm not following why they name a trophy given for "outstanding feats of skill, alertness, ingenuity or proficiency that avert an accident or minimize the severity of the mishap" after a guy who vanished on a training flight.

The greatest trick the pilot ever pulled was convincing the world he didn't exist.

Also. I've now mentioned negativland so no one else needs to.
posted by Babblesort at 8:54 AM on May 12, 2010 [1 favorite]


Cholene Espinoza seems like a pretty interesting person: obviously a fighter pilot and author but also a very publicly out lesbian partnered with Ellen Ratner, and on the board of directors for Cornerpost, an Internet filtering software company.
posted by chesty_a_arthur at 8:59 AM on May 12, 2010 [2 favorites]


I just finished reading Ben Rich's book about the Skunk Works, which includes a couple of chapters on the U-2. It was a pretty remarkable project, essentially a giant glider to fly way higher than anything else possibly could. It's got a wingspan of 100 feet, bigger than a 737, all for one pilot and a surveillance package. There's some funny stories of Soviet pilots trying to go ballistic in their fighter jets, to literally rocket themselves up from their usual ceiling of 55,000 feet to reach the U-2 at 70,000.

One crazy part of the Powers story; Rich says that all the U-2 pilots had suicide pills. And that Powers got a lot of criticism for not taking his, for being captured alive and becoming an embarrassing problem for the US. Lockheed gave him a test pilot job after all the dust settled. It's sad how he died, running out of fuel while flying a television helicopter.
posted by Nelson at 9:01 AM on May 12, 2010 [2 favorites]


Here's the Wiki page of the Global Hawk UAV mentioned in the NYT article. At present, it seems to be an unreliable POS, however.
posted by Burhanistan at 9:04 AM on May 12, 2010


there may not be full truth about Gary Power's having been shot down:
NSA reports, classified for years, tell a different story, for which, see
posted by Postroad at 9:10 AM on May 12, 2010


That James May video is great. I'm constantly amazed that an air-breathing aircraft can operate that high. Impressive engineering.
posted by Thorzdad at 9:13 AM on May 12, 2010


That article actually does a pretty terrible job of selling the U2.
....You never knew what to expect when you took it into the air, no matter how seasoned a pilot you were. This was an unfortunate consequence of its design. The trade-off of a plane built light enough to fly above 70,000 feet is that it is almost impossible to control. And 13 miles above the ground, the atmosphere is so thin that the “envelope” between stalling and “overspeed” — going so fast you lose control of the plane, resulting in an unrecoverable nose dive — is razor-thin, making minor disruptions, even turbulence, as deadly as a missile. The challenge is even greater near the ground, since to save weight, the plane doesn’t have normal landing gear.
...
Getting the plane up and down was not the only challenge. Staying airborne — and alert — for countless hours, looking at nothing but sky, was another. I learned the hard way, for example, that you can get diaper rash from Gatorade.

Other risks were less benign, as I found when I was the ground officer for a pilot who radioed, “My skin feels like it’s crawling.” He had the bends so badly from changes in pressure that when he landed his body was covered with huge welts. Had the weather not cleared in time for him to land, these bubbles of nitrogen might have lodged in his brain or optical nerve — as they had in other U-2 pilots.
Uh.... no thanks.
posted by delmoi at 9:20 AM on May 12, 2010 [1 favorite]


of the Global Hawk UAV mentioned in the NYT article. At present, it seems to be an unreliable POS, however.
Sure, but with no pilot to worry about, who cares? The only downside is the $35m cost. They really need to bring costs down on drone aircraft, they should be much cheaper.
posted by delmoi at 9:21 AM on May 12, 2010


Also. I've now mentioned negativland so no one else needs to.
posted by Babblesort at 11:54 AM on May 12 [+] [!]


Check the title.
posted by googly at 9:21 AM on May 12, 2010 [2 favorites]


Sure, but with no pilot to worry about, who cares? The only downside is the $35m cost.

There's your answer. It's cheaper to send men up there (and pay for their health problems) than the robot, for now.
posted by Burhanistan at 9:23 AM on May 12, 2010


They had a U-2 operation out of RAF Akrotiri when I was there in the 80's. It was always a bit of a pain - it was kept in a locked hangar, we had to clear the circuit whenever it was coming and going and we were even supposed to close the messroom curtains so we wouldn't see it as its presence on an RAF base and its missions were still relatively covert. They flew one into the Air Traffic Control tower and demolished it, and there were all sorts of interesting rumours about it being a sniper, but it was just cross wind. People used to think the Mustang chase cars had CIA operatives with pistols to stop you getting too close, but it was just other pilots giving directions as the pilot couldn't see a thing on the ground.
posted by falcon at 9:32 AM on May 12, 2010 [2 favorites]


Here's a longer story about the rumours that Postroad points to above, that Powers may have defected.
posted by chrchr at 9:32 AM on May 12, 2010


After seeing that James May video a while back, I remember thinking how cool it was that it was conceivable that just a regular someone could get the opportunity to get to the edge of space like that.

Now I'm sad because it seems increasingly likely that it won't be a U2 that gets me there.

Which means I'm back to the original idea which is a nuclear jet powered Zeppelin. Yeah, I know the original prototype left that thousand or so square miles irreparably irradiated. But hey, what are my options?
posted by quin at 9:54 AM on May 12, 2010 [1 favorite]


Even so great a bastion of truth and beauty as The New York Post covered the story about a possible defect by Gary Powers; however, Gary's son opened a museum, to honor the secret service stuff (NSA) and honor those who worked and died for it, and here, at its dedication, Gary's son gives a speech (mentioning of course his father)

http://www.coldwar.org/education/powers_remarks.html
posted by Postroad at 9:57 AM on May 12, 2010


It's cheaper to send men up there (and pay for their health problems) than the robot, for now.

Actually I doubt very much that it is; $35m isn't that much even for a manned aircraft. It'll get cheaper as they make more of them. That's roughly a third of the F-22 unit cost.

Also, and far more important than simple costs, are the strategic public-relations implications of having human pilots who get killed. The way you lose a war today is by losing public support. You lose public support when the (friendly) casualties get too high. The U.S. public will probably support an expensive drone war for far longer than they'd support a cheap manned war that results in a stream of flag-draped coffins. This is, of course, not an issue that's restricted to the Air Force.

The biggest impediment is, or at least has been, that the Air Force is (in very large part) run by pilots, and it's not exactly a drone-friendly environment. It wasn't until recently when the SECDEF (Gates) kicked them in the ass (by not funding a bunch of manned aircraft programs, like more F-22s or the NGB while keeping some of the less-loved drone programs) that they started to really get behind drone aircraft. They also have a non-pilot Air Force guy as Chief of Staff, which is apparently a first.

They're changing -- this will be the first year that more drone pilots are trained than conventional pilots, and there's work being done to make drone piloting into an equal career path -- but it's a slow change.
posted by Kadin2048 at 10:14 AM on May 12, 2010 [1 favorite]


I must note again that Francis Gary Powers was able to survive crashing the U-2 better than crashing "The Channel 4 Telecopter".
posted by oneswellfoop at 10:46 AM on May 12, 2010


oneswellfoop: interesting article. Running out of fuel in a helicopter isn't that big of a deal (in daylight, at least). They used to kill the engines on us in training - you autorotate, then convert the energy in the rotors to lift to kill your descent rate, and land. Bit of hand-eye coordination required and needs a decent spot, but 800 feet is plenty of height to sort that out and those photos show there was a lot of room. Very odd.
posted by falcon at 10:59 AM on May 12, 2010


a requiem for the era of human pilots for surveillance, giving way now to UAVs and other remote-control drones.

Even prior to Judgment Day, Skynet has much to answer for.
posted by Halloween Jack at 11:17 AM on May 12, 2010


There's some funny stories of Soviet pilots trying to go ballistic in their fighter jets, to literally rocket themselves up from their usual ceiling of 55,000 feet to reach the U-2 at 70,000.

Good thing they didn't have English Electric Lightnings:

In September 1962 Fighter Command organized a series of trial supersonic overland interceptions of Lockheed U-2As, temporarily based at RAF Upper Heyford to monitor resumed Soviet nuclear tests, at heights of around 60,000-65,000 ft.[22][23] The trials took place in two stages, the second series consisting of 14 interceptions, including four successful and four abortive ones at 65,000.[24] The late Brian Carroll, a former RAF Lightning pilot and ex-Lightning Chief Examiner, reported taking a Lightning F.53 up to 87,300 feet (26 600 m) over Saudi Arabia at which level "Earth curvature was visible and the sky was quite dark" but control-wise it was "on a knife edge".[25]

In 1984, during a major NATO exercise, Flt Lt Mike Hale intercepted an American U-2 at a height which they had previously considered safe from interception. Records show that Hale climbed to 88,000 ft (26,800 m) in his Lightning F.3 XR749. This was not sustained level flight, but in a ballistic climb or a zoom climb, in which the pilot takes the aircraft to top speed and then puts the aircraft into a climb, trading speed for altitude.

posted by EndsOfInvention at 12:45 PM on May 12, 2010 [3 favorites]


I think it was in Rich Graham's book about the SR-71 that I read how they would sometimes fly past a U-2 on the way to their objective, fly around and grab a bunch of intelligence data, then pass the same U-2 on the way back, all while the poor U-2 pilot was still heading out to his objective with hours more to spend in the air.

And now we can note that the U-2 was in the air before the SR-71 and is still in the air long after, but in a completely different sense.
posted by FishBike at 1:14 PM on May 12, 2010


That article actually does a pretty terrible job of selling the U2.

Sure, if you mean compared to all the other ways to accomplish the same job that were available at the time. And if you consider human achievement to be Stuff That Anyone Could Do. Some people like a challenge.
posted by yerfatma at 2:25 PM on May 12, 2010


From Wikipedia:
To maintain balance while taxiing for takeoff, the ground crew installs two auxiliary wheels, called "pogos". These fit into sockets under each wing at about mid-span, and fall onto the runway as the aircraft takes off.
Legend has it that new recruits for ground crews were told they had to run alongside the plane when it landed to re-install those pogos.
posted by ovvl at 4:16 PM on May 12, 2010


I too it to mean that delmoi thought that the writing was underwhelming. You're flying a legendary spy plane and all you can say is "The challenge is even greater near the ground, since to save weight, the plane doesn’t have normal landing gear." ...and then don't explain what the means. Not normal? So? What? What'd it have? Skis? Gerbil wheels?
Also, why are you in an eleventy-billion dollar plane in diapers and not with a catheter-thing? Is it normal to spy on the baddies whilst sitting in your own pee? What did that do for your morale?

On the other hand, homunculus' link to "The Thrill of Flying the SR-71 Blackbird" was fun to read. "In his most innocent voice, Walter startled the controller by asking for a ground speed check from 81,000 feet, clearly above controlled airspace. In a cool, professional voice, the controller replied, ' Aspen 20, I show you at 1,982 knots on the ground.' We did not hear another transmission on that frequency all the way to the coast. (...) I loved that jet." said the author, and it really shows. Really really.
posted by Zack_Replica at 4:32 PM on May 12, 2010


Unsourced trivia:

Legend has it that the "U" in U-2 represented "Utility".
And, that the U-1 was the de Havilland Canada DHC-2 Beaver.
posted by ovvl at 4:50 PM on May 12, 2010


I don't care if he defected or if it's obsolete. The U-2 was one of the finest pieces of mid-century industrial design conceivable.
posted by digitalprimate at 5:25 PM on May 12, 2010 [1 favorite]


The role of satellite reconnaissance radically altered the U2 and SR-71's role.

There is a great podcast with a guy who was part of the Corona program, Ronald Ondrejka that may be of interest to people here.

In it he points out how successful the satellites were. The first launch and run over the Soviet Union took more photo footage than the entire U2 program had to date.

UAVs are replacing the last bit of what the U2 did with manned reconnaissance now but unmanned satellites did most of it decades ago. At the time there was also a planned manned space reconnaissance program planned as well.
posted by sien at 5:39 PM on May 12, 2010


The NASA airbase near here used to fly a high-altitude research version of the U2 every Friday. It would take off, pull a steep angle, then just blast itself upward until it quickly disappeared. It was kind of reassuring to hear the weekly Friday blast of sound.

If you look at the video, you'll notice these weird little wheels on these support columns attached to the wings, that drop off when it picks up speed. The wings are so long that they can't support their own weight enough to keep them from touching the ground.

So what do they do when they land? Believe it or not there are two people on each side of the runway at the end, who run up and grab the wings as the plane slows to a halt. I'm sorry the video left that out.
posted by eye of newt at 11:38 PM on May 12, 2010


Here's a video showing them catching the wings at about 1:20 and installing the extra wheels (not the best video, sorry).
posted by eye of newt at 12:02 AM on May 13, 2010


or what ovvl said
posted by eye of newt at 12:07 AM on May 13, 2010


The U-2 Wikipedia article notes that the "U" is "Utility", but the U-1 was apparently the Otter, not the Beaver.
posted by mendel at 10:14 AM on May 16, 2010


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