Sidebar: Life Support: Flying in Rarefied Air
Like the U-2s themselves, pressure suits have steadily evolved. Francis Gary Powers’ suit was primitive compared to Rob “Skid” Rowe’s custom-fitted, $250,000, 1034-type suit. Rowe is the Skunk Works chief U-2 pilot, and he likes to say that he wears his cockpit, which is a self-contained environment that weighs 35 pounds. In the event of rapid decompression at high altitude, the suit would instantly fill with air to keep the nitrogen in his blood from forming bubbles and bringing on the painful bends. The suit is made of Nomex, a DuPont-developed fabric that is both tough and flame retardant. And whereas Powers’ suit was olive green to help him evade the enemy if he bailed out, the 1034 and others like it are yellow or orange for the opposite reason: to enhance a pilot’s visibility to rescue crews. There are 249 model 1034 pressure suits in the world, Rowe says, and they are used by about 90 pilots. The suits are so carefully integrated with the airplane that the switches on the instrument panel are sized for the suit’s thickly-gloved fingers.
The helmet, which locks into the suit’s round collar, has the standard two visors, one clear and one dark, found on all military helmets. But it also has a quarter-inch hole in it through which the pilot on a long flight can dine by uncapping a toothpaste-size tube of food, screwing it into a five-inch-long plastic cylinder, sticking the cylinder through the hole and into the mouth, and squeezing. The pilot can choose from a wide variety of fruits, vegetables, and meat dishes such as beef stew. Every tube has a light blue sticker that lists its contents, such as "FOOD VARIETY: Peaches." All of them are similar to baby food, which figures, since they are made by Gerber. Unlike the jars at the grocer’s though, the tubes cost $3. Orders are taken during suit up, and the food is put in the cockpit by technicians, who yell the menu to the pilot just before the canopy comes down and seals.
At the other extreme, there is the waste disposal system, which varies according to the gender of the pilot. Women wear a diaper like those used on the space shuttle. (The first female Air Force pilot flew a U-2S in the mid-1990s, and there are now three mission-qualified female pilots in the Ninth Reconnaissance Wing at Beale Air Force Base in California, which operates the aircraft and deploys it around the world. The fifth woman to fly it is waiting to begin training.) Men use a urine collection device, a molded latex tube that is fitted to the pilot and has a clip to close it off at the end. The long tube hangs from an opening in the white cotton underwear that is worn under the pressure suit. “Occasionally,” says Mark Mitchell, “various people on tours would like to see a pilot suit up. It was always interesting to walk out of the locker room in your underwear with a long tube hanging out of your crotch.”
The pressure suit has a valve on its left leg. The UCD is connected to the valve during suit up, and while the pilot is strapping into the cockpit, a technician takes a clear plastic tube that comes out of the other side of the valve and jams it into a receptacle on the control column that sends the urine into a container under the floor in front of the seat. But the setup doesn’t always work, Mitchell says. “There are more than a few pilots who finished the mission with a very wet foot.” Before missions, pilots eat high-protein, low-residue meals, such as steak and eggs.