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U-2 Dragon Lady

  1. Jan 31, 2006 #1
    Thought you all might enjoy reading this.


    U-2 Dragon Lady

    Maj. Dean Neeley is in the forward, lower cockpit of the Lockheed
    U-2ST, a two-place version of the U-2S, a high-altitude reconnaissance
    aircraft that the Air Force calls "Dragon Lady.." His voice on the
    intercom breaks the silence. "Do you know that you're the highest person
    in the world?" He explains that I am in the higher of the two cockpits
    and that there are no other U-2s airborne right now. "Astronauts don't
    count," he says, "They're out of this world."

    We are above 70,000 feet and still climbing slowly as the aircraft
    becomes lighter. The throttle has been at its mechanical limit since
    takeoff, and the single General Electric F118-GE-101 turbofan engine sips
    fuel so slowly at this altitude that consumption is less than when idling
    on the ground. Although true airspeed is that of a typical jetliner,
    indicated airspeed registers only in double digits.

    I cannot detect the curvature of the Earth, although some U-2 pilots
    claim that they can. The sky at the horizon is hazy white but transitions
    to midnight blue at our zenith. It seems that if we were much higher, the
    sky would become black enough to see stars at noon.. The Sierra Nevada,
    the mountainous spine of California, has lost its glory, a mere
    corrugation on the Earth. Lake Tahoe looks like a fishing hole, and
    rivers have become rivulets. Far below, "high flying" jetliners etch
    contrails over Reno, Nevada, but we are so high above these aircraft that
    they cannot be seen.

    I feel mild concern about the bailout light on the instrument panel and
    pray that Neeley does not have reason to turn it on. At this altitude I
    also feel a sense of insignificance and isolation; earthly concerns seem
    trivial. This flight is an epiphany, a life-altering experience.

    I cannot detect air noise through the helmet of my pressure suit. I
    hear only my own breathing, the hum of avionics through my headset and,
    inexplicably, an occasional, shallow moan from the engine, as if it were
    gasping for air. Atmospheric pressure is only an inch of mercury, less
    than 4 percent of sea-level pressure. Air density and engine power are
    similarly low. The stratospheric wind is predictably light, from the
    southwest at 5 kt, and the outside air temperature is minus 61 degrees

    Neeley says that he has never experienced weather that could not be
    topped in a U-2, and I am reminded of the classic transmission made by
    John Glenn during Earth orbit in a Mercury space capsule: "Another
    thousand feet, and we'll be on top."

    Although not required, we remain in contact with Oakland Center while
    in the Class E airspace that begins at Flight Level 600. The U-2's Mode C
    transponder, however, can indicate no higher than FL600. When other U-2s
    are in the area, pilots report their altitudes, and ATC keeps them
    separated by 5,000 feet and 10 miles.

    Our high-flying living quarters are pressurized to 29,500 feet, but
    100-percent oxygen supplied only to our faces lowers our physiological
    altitude to about 8,000 feet. A pressurization-system failure would cause
    our suits to instantly inflate to maintain a pressure altitude of 35,000
    feet, and the flow of pure oxygen would provide a physiological altitude
    of 10,000 feet.

    The forward and aft cockpits are configured almost identically. A
    significant difference is the down-looking periscope/driftmeter in the
    center of the forward instrument panel. It is used to precisely track
    over specific ground points during reconnaissance, something that
    otherwise would be impossible from high altitude. The forward cockpit
    also is equipped with a small side-view mirror extending into the air
    stream. It is used to determine if the U-2 is generating a telltale
    contrail when over hostile territory.

    Considering its 103-foot wingspan and resultant roll dampening, the U-2
    maneuvers surprisingly well at altitude; the controls are light and
    nicely harmonized. Control wheels (not sticks) are used, however, perhaps
    because aileron forces are heavy at low altitude. A yaw string (like
    those used on sailplanes) above each canopy silently admonishes those who
    allow the aircraft to slip or skid when maneuvering. The U-2 is very much
    a stick-and-rudder airplane, and I discover that slipping can be avoided
    by leading turn entry and recovery with slight rudder pressure.

    When approaching its service ceiling, the U-2's maximum speed is little
    more than its minimum. This marginal difference between the onset of
    stall buffet and Mach buffet is known as coffin corner, an area
    warranting caution. A stall/spin sequence can cause control loss from
    which recovery might not be possible when so high, and an excessive Mach
    number can compromise structural integrity. Thankfully, an autopilot with
    Mach hold is provided.

    The U-2 has a fuel capacity of 2,915 gallons of thermally stable jet
    fuel distributed among four wing tanks. It is unusual to discuss turbine
    fuel in gallons instead of pounds, but the 1950s-style fuel gauges in the
    U-2 indicate in gallons. Most of the other flight instruments seem
    equally antiquated.

    I train at 'The Ranch'

    Preparation for my high flight began the day before at Beale Air Force
    Base (a.k.a. The Ranch), which is north of Sacramento, California, and
    was where German prisoners of war were interned during World War II. It
    is home to the 9th Reconnaissance Wing, which is responsible for
    worldwide U-2 operations, including those aircraft based in Cyprus;
    Italy; Saudi Arabia; and South Korea.

    After passing a physical exam (whew!), I took a short, intensive course
    in high-altitude physiology and use of the pressure suit. The 27-pound
    Model S1034 "pilot's protective assembly" is manufactured by David Clark
    (the headset people) and is the same as the one used by astronauts during
    shuttle launch and reentry.

    After being measured for my $150,000 spacesuit, I spent an hour in the
    egress trainer. It provided no comfort to learn that pulling up mightily
    on the handle between my legs would activate the ejection seat at any
    altitude or airspeed. When the handle is pulled, the control wheels go
    fully forward, explosives dispose of the canopy, cables attached to spurs
    on your boots pull your feet aft, and you are rocketed into space. You
    could then free fall in your inflated pressure suit for 54,000 feet or
    more. I was told that "the parachute opens automatically at 16,500 feet,
    or you get a refund."

    I later donned a harness and virtual-reality goggles to practice
    steering a parachute to landing. After lunch, a crew assisted me into a
    pressure suit in preparation for my visit to the altitude chamber. There
    I became reacquainted with the effects of hypoxia and was subjected to a
    sudden decompression that elevated the chamber to 73,000 feet. The
    pressure suit inflated as advertised and just as suddenly I became the
    Michelin man. I was told that it is possible to fly the U-2 while puffed
    up but that it is difficult.

    A beaker of water in the chamber boiled furiously to demonstrate what
    would happen to my blood if I were exposed without protection to ambient
    pressure above 63,000 feet.

    After a thorough preflight briefing the next morning, Neeley and I put
    on long johns and UCDs (urinary collection devices), were assisted into
    our pressure suits, performed a leak check (both kinds), and settled into
    a pair of reclining lounge chairs for an hour of breathing pure oxygen.
    This displaces nitrogen in the blood to prevent decompression sickness
    (the bends) that could occur during ascent.

    During this "pre-breathing," I felt as though I were in a Ziploc
    bag-style cocoon and anticipated the possibility of claustrophobia. There
    was none, and I soon became comfortably acclimatized to my confinement.

    We were in the aircraft an hour later. Preflight checks completed and
    engine started, we taxied to Beale's 12,000-foot-long runway. The single
    main landing gear is not steerable, differential braking is unavailable,
    and the dual tailwheels move only 6 degrees in each direction, so it
    takes a lot of concrete to maneuver on the ground. Turn radius is 189
    feet, and I had to lead with full rudder in anticipation of all turns.

    We taxied into position and came to a halt so that personnel could
    remove the safety pins from the outrigger wheels (called pogos) that
    prevent one wing tip or the other from scraping the ground. Lt. Col. Greg
    "Spanky" Barber, another U-2 pilot, circled the aircraft in a mobile
    command vehicle to give the aircraft a final exterior check.

    I knew that the U-2 is overpowered at sea level. It has to be for its
    engine, normally aspirated like every other turbine engine, to have
    enough power remaining to climb above 70,000 feet. Also, we weighed only
    24,000 pounds (maximum allowable is 41,000 pounds) and were departing
    into a brisk headwind. Such knowledge did not prepare me for what

    The throttle was fully advanced and would remain that way until the
    beginning of descent. The 17,000 pounds of thrust made it feel as though
    I had been shot from a cannon. Within two to three seconds and 400 feet
    of takeoff roll, the wings flexed, the pogos fell away, and we entered a
    nose-up attitude of almost 45 degrees at a best-angle-of-climb airspeed
    of 100 kt. Initial climb rate was 9,000 fpm.

    We were still over the runway and through 10,000 feet less than 90
    seconds from brake release. One need not worry about a flameout after
    takeoff in a U-2. There either is enough runway to land straight ahead or
    enough altitude (only 1,000 feet is needed) to circle the airport for a
    dead-stick approach and landing.

    The bicycle landing gear creates little drag and has no limiting
    airspeed, so there was no rush to tuck away the wheels. (The landing gear
    is not retracted at all when in the traffic pattern shooting touch and

    We passed through 30,000 feet five minutes after liftoff and climb rate
    steadily decreased until above 70,000 feet, when further climb occurred
    only as the result of fuel burn.

    On final approach

    Dragon Lady is still drifting toward the upper limits of the atmosphere
    at 100 to 200 fpm and will continue to do so until it is time to descend.
    It spends little of its life at a given altitude. Descent begins by
    retarding the throttle to idle and lowering the landing gear. We raise
    the spoilers, deploy the speed brakes (one on each side of the aft
    fuselage), and engage the gust alleviation system. This raises both
    ailerons 7.5 degrees above their normal neutral point and deflects the
    wing flaps 6.5 degrees upward. This helps to unload the wings and protect
    the airframe during possible turbulence in the lower atmosphere.

    Gust protection is needed because the Dragon Lady is like a China doll;
    she cannot withstand heavy gust and maneuvering loads. Strength would
    have required a heavier structure, and the U-2's designer, Clarence
    "Kelly" Johnson, shaved as much weight as possible-which is why there are
    only two landing gear legs instead of three.. Every pound saved resulted
    in a 10-foot increase in ceiling.

    With everything possible hanging and extended, the U-2 shows little
    desire to go down. It will take 40 minutes to descend to traffic pattern
    altitude but we needed only half that time climbing to altitude.

    During this normal descent, the U-2 covers 37 nm for each 10,000 of
    altitude lost. When clean and at the best glide speed of 109 kt, it has a
    glide ratio of 28:1. It is difficult to imagine ever being beyond glide
    range of a suitable airport except when over large bodies of water or
    hostile territory. Because there is only one fuel quantity gauge, and it
    shows only the total remaining, it is difficult to know whether fuel is
    distributed evenly, which is important when landing a U-2. A low-altitude
    stall is performed to determine which is the heavier wing, and some fuel
    is then transferred from it to the other.

    We are on final approach with flaps at 35 degrees (maximum is 50
    degrees) in a slightly nose-down attitude. The U-2 is flown with a heavy
    hand when slow, while being careful not to overcontrol. Speed over the
    threshold is only 1.1 VSO (75 kt), very close to stall. More speed would
    result in excessive floating.

    I peripherally see Barber accelerating the 140-mph, stock Chevrolet
    Camaro along the runway as he joins in tight formation with our landing
    aircraft. I hear him on the radio calling out our height (standard
    practice for all U-2 landings). The U-2 must be close to normal touchdown
    attitude at a height of one foot before the control wheel is brought
    firmly aft to stall the wings and plant the tailwheels on the concrete.
    The feet remain active on the pedals, during which time it is necessary
    to work diligently to keep the wings level. A roll spoiler on each wing
    lends a helping hand when its respective aileron is raised more than 13

    The aircraft comes to rest, a wing tip falls to the ground, and crewmen
    appear to reattach the pogos for taxiing.

    Landing a U-2 is notoriously challenging, especially for those who have
    never flown taildraggers or sailplanes. It can be like dancing with a
    lady or wrestling a dragon, depending on wind and runway conditions.
    Maximum allowable crosswind is 15 kt.

    The U-2 was first flown by Tony Levier in August 1955, at Groom Lake
    (Area 51), Nevada. The aircraft was then known as Article 341, an
    attempt by the Central Intelligence Agency to disguise the secret nature
    of its project. Current U-2s are 40 percent larger and much more powerful
    than the one in which Francis Gary Powers was downed by a missile over
    the Soviet Union on May 1, 1960.

    The Soviets referred to the U-2 as the "Black Lady of Espionage"
    because of its spy missions and mystique. The age of its design, however,
    belies the sophistication of the sensing technology carried within.
    During U.S. involvement in Kosovo, for example, U-2s gathered and
    forwarded data via satellite to Intelligence at Beale AFB for instant
    analysis. The results were sent via satellite to battle commanders, who
    decided whether attack aircraft should be sent to the target. In one
    case, U-2 sensors detected enemy aircraft parked on a dirt road and
    camouflaged by thick, overhanging trees. Only a few minutes elapsed
    between detection and destruction. No other nation has this capability.

    The U-2 long ago outlived predictions of its demise. It also survived
    its heir apparent, the Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird. The fleet of 37 aircraft
    is budgeted to operate for another 20 years, but this could be affected
    by the evolution and effectiveness of unmanned aircraft.

    After returning to Earth (physically and emotionally), I am escorted to
    the Heritage Room where 20 U-2 pilots join to share in the spirited
    celebration of my high flight. Many of them are involved in general
    aviation and some have their own aircraft.

    The walls of this watering hole are replete with fascinating
    memorabilia about U-2 operations and history. Several plaques proudly
    list all who have ever soloed Dragon Lady. This group of 670 forms an
    elite and unusually close-knit cadre of dedicated airmen.
    Last edited: Jan 31, 2006
  2. jcsd
  3. Jan 31, 2006 #2

    Notice the Camero like in the story, but this ones a single seat. 9,000 fpm climb at 45 degrees. :eek:


    Last edited: Jan 31, 2006
  4. Jan 31, 2006 #3
    Wow, simply fascinating. I've always had a casual interest in airplane history and aeronautics, and this is a great thing to read. I hope others find it the same.
  5. Feb 2, 2006 #4


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    Gold Member

    Fascinating! There aren't many things that I don't think I'd want to drive, but this might be one of them. (The Hudson bomber/Lockheed 14 is another.) Sounds a bit too finicky for me.
    I'm a bit confused, though. Is that a quote from somewhere, or did you get to play with one yourself?
  6. Feb 2, 2006 #5
    Its told by an SR-71 Pilot who got a ride in the U-2. I wish danger. They dont like the schmucks like me anywhere near them.
    Last edited: Feb 2, 2006
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