Wingman in a Pontiac
It takes two to land the dragon lady.
- By Preston Lerner
- Air & Space magazine, May 2012
Air Force Captain Dan Watson redlines the throttle of his Pontiac G8 GT, and the 361-horsepower V-8 engine sends him hurtling down Runway 15 at California’s Beale Air Force Base at 100-plus mph. Watson (at Air Force request, names have been changed for security purposes) angles left off a taxiway to intercept a Lockheed U-2 that’s about to land.
He keys the microphone attached to the radio: “Forty feet,” he says as the U-2S, flown by Captain Gary Milder, soars past at 80 mph. “Thirty. Twenty. Ten.” Watson slots in 10 yards behind the spindly black aircraft and slows to match its pace. “Five. Three. Two. One. One and a half. One.”
Watson’s tone is detached, clinical. Judging from the antic fluttering of the elevators and rudder, it’s clear that Milder is dancing with a twitchy partner. “The U-2 is a real stick-and-rudder airplane,” he explains later. “Plus, it’s like a giant windsock. So down low, it’s a bear.”
Kelly Johnson and his team at the Lockheed Skunk Works designed the U-2 to fly, not to land, and its glider-like wings, spanning 105 feet on later models, generate so much lift that during a 1955 taxi test, pilot Tony LeVier inadvertently left the ground. With its ability to loiter for more than 10 hours, the U-2 has been performing reconnaissance duty for the Air Force—and the CIA—ever since.
The U-2 is optimized for high altitudes, where Air Force Captain Jay Jones, an instructor pilot at Beale, says “it handles like a sports car.” But the mechanical flight-control system lacks hydraulic assist, so in the landing pattern, it feels more like an 18-wheeler.
Landing the legendary spyplane is especially challenging because it’s fitted with skateboard-style landing gear rather than a conventional tricycle arrangement. (During taxiing and takeoffs, the wings are supported by a pair of outriggers called pogos, and after landing, the U-2 comes to rest on a wingtip protected by a titanium skid plate.) New pilots are taught to fly down a three-degree glideslope until the tires are two feet off the runway. They hold it there until the wings stall—it’s virtually impossible to get the U-2 on the ground until they do—allowing the airplane to touch down on the tailwheels, then ease onto the main gear.
With its slender profile, the aircraft is tetchy in crosswinds, and if the landing gear isn’t pointing straight ahead, the U-2 will veer off the runway. Also, the pilot’s vision is compromised by the cumbersome pressure suit required at high altitudes—the dumb suit, Jones calls it, because “wearing it reduces your IQ by half.”
With that limitation, plus the U-2’s ungainly dimensions and skittish characteristics, little wonder that applicants get a severe case of jitters about their three evaluation flights, just one requirement of a torturous vetting process they undergo before being allowed to fly a U-2.