I Flew the U-2
One of Lockheed’s former chief test pilots for high altitude reconnaissance describes the joys and terrors of the U-2.
- By Linda Shiner
- Air & Space magazine, March 2012
(Page 3 of 6)
When you were flying above 70,000 feet, could you enjoy the view? Could you take time from testing sensors to take a few seconds and just look?
Oh, yeah, you were always looking out up there. You could make out the curvature of the Earth very slightly; nothing like in spacecraft, but you could. And the sky is getting darker as you get up higher. And then looking at all the various landmarks: You can see all the Great Lakes in one shot. And that was very impressive, and down the Florida Keys, or up along the Aleutian Islands, and places like that, it was spectacular. And I remember on one flight up near the Canadian border going northeast, the planet looked like a great big golf ball because they had had an enormous snow storm, and everything was just snow white.
And is the air smooth up there?
Usually the air is very smooth above 60,000 feet. Once in a great while we would encounter sever clear air turbulence and were along for a very rough ride with the wings flexing a great deal. We were above the clouds most of the time. When you get down near the equator, the cumulonimbus and the thunderstorms are the highest down there, but we were usually above all that. And watching those big buildups was something. We didn’t pull any contrails at altitude. Occasionally, you got some, but usually when you got up above 60,000 feet, the contrails were very small or disappeared altogether. And you looked down and you could see the weather patterns—hurricanes, and the eye of the hurricanes, or something that was just a tropical storm, the counterclockwise storm system.
Were you ever able to snap any photographs for yourself?
Well, I took a picture of my home, and I took a picture of my parents place down in Texas. I never had an onboard hand-held camera in the cockpit.
So you used the U-2 camera to take a picture of your house?
[laughter] Well, we had a little camera that they called a tracking camera, and you’d turn that on and it would take a picture every few seconds. And that would document exactly where you had been. It was a hard copy record of the flight path. And so I would deviate slightly and come over my house, so the house was right in the viewsight. I had that picture hanging on my wall for a long time, but I don’t know where it may be right now.
You’ve called the U-2 a difficult airplane to land.
I have flown over 200 different types and models of airplanes and helicopters, and the U-2 was far and beyond the most difficult airplane to land I have ever tried.
Did anyone warn you about the landing characteristics before your first flight?
Oh, you bet. Everybody told me that. From Tony LeVier on down, everybody said you gotta be careful. And I had a lot of tailwheel experience before flying the U-2. And I thought I knew something about it. But in actuality, I didn’t know anything about how to land the U-2. But I learned pretty fast because these guys were there briefing me before and debriefing me afterwards, telling me exactly what should be done.
The really difficult thing about the airplane…everybody makes a big deal about it being a powered glider, but the difference between the U-2 and the everyday glider is the center of gravity in the U-2 is behind the main landing gear. And so what that does is that when you just barely touch the main gear on the runway, the weight of the engine and the CG [center of gravity] aft of that will make the tail go down, and immediately you generate an enormous amount of lift with those big wings and the airplane wants to get back in the air. So that’s what you’re not really prepared for. You may have a lot of glider experience where the CG is always forward of the main gear, but in this airplane the landing gear—because it had to have that big engine in there—had to be forward of the engine in the space that was available.
So the gear touches down and the nose comes up?
The nose comes up, the angle of attack immediately increases, the lift increases, and you’re back in the air. The tendency is to push the yoke forward to change the angle of attack, decrease the lift and put it back on the runway. Well, you’re always a day late and a dollar short when you do that, and you’re behind it, and the airplane is going down when you think it should be going up, and it’s going up when you think it should be going down, and you get a big porpoise going. Then it bounces down the runway and it stalls out, and it crashes. And that’s where so many guys got in trouble and beat up the airplane.
When Tony LeVier flew the first flight on the airplane, that’s what he encountered. He had been told by Kelly Johnson “now this is the way I want you to land it,” and he had told Kelly, “No, Kelly. That’s not the way you do it. This is a taildragger, and you land it tailwheel first.” Kelly said no, I want it done this way. You bring it in and land it on the main gear.
Well, Tony had a terrible time. The first few attempts doing it Kelly’s way didn’t work, and he’d bounce back up in the air, and he was about to get the porpoise going and he had to add power to it and take it around. So he got tired of listening to Kelly he was there, flying alongside of him in the C-47 with [test pilot] Ray Goudey, so he yanked the cord on his headset so he didn’t have to listen to Kelly or anybody else tell him how to land it. He went back to his way of landing it tailwheel first, got it on the dry lake bed runway, and then when he jumped out, the story went that Kelly came over to him and was barking at him, and Tony flipped him the bird. And Kelly Johnson said “U-2.” So now you have a designator for the airplane. I don’t know how true that is, I wasn’t there. But that’s the story I got.
How did you get to fly in the Century Series jets?
I was assigned to the Aerospace Research Pilot’s School. When I went to Navy test pilot school at Patuxent, I knew about the astronaut program and never dreamed that I’d have a chance to do it. Shortly after I graduated from Navy test pilot school and was at Flight Test at Pax River, NASA opened up the program for the second astronaut selection. I applied and went through that process and got into the 32 finalists, along with Neil Armstrong and Jim Lovell and Tom Stafford, and whole bunch of other incredible guys. I failed the selection; I was one of the 23 NASA rejects from that group; they picked nine. I analyzed it and tried to find what shortcomings caused me to fail, and it came to be really apparent to me that this nine they had selected were absolutely gifted academics. They all were in the top 10 of their classes. Intellectual giants. So I went to headquarters, Marine Corps, and said, “Look, if you want to get any more Marines in this program, you’re going to need to get them some serious education. You ought to start by getting a billet for a Marine out there at that Aerospace Research Pilot School. Well, they had a selection process, and I get a phone call. I was thrilled. And I went out to Edwards, and that’s were I got to fly the F-100, the -101, the -106, and spent an awful lot of time in the -104. And I got my first flight in the U-2, and the first flight in a B-52, of all things.
How interesting that was. I’d been flying the F-4 at Pax River. When I got to Edwards and was flying the F-104, that was a whole different thing. I didn’t get to fly the -105; they didn’t have one available there at the school. Well, anyway, I failed the selection the second time, while I was in the school out there. And when I graduated from that, the Marine Corps said, “We had enough of you.” and sent me overseas to be a staff secretary at the First Marine Aircraft Wing.
How did you like that?