Wingman in a Pontiac
It takes two to land the dragon lady.
- By Preston Lerner
- Air & Space magazine, May 2012
(Page 2 of 2)
Joining the program is just the first step in learning how to keep the airplane right side up. Every pilot, no matter how good, needs help when he or she is on or near the ground. So whenever a U-2 taxis or lands, another U-2 pilot accompanies it in a mobile—Air Force parlance for a car. Because every flight requires a mobile—think of it as a ground-based wingman—all U-2 fliers are trained as such. “It’s like having an extra brain and another set of eyes to help prevent you from screwing up,” Jones explains.
The mobile program began in the 1950s with Ford station wagons. Eventually, they were replaced by Chevy El Caminos, then 5.0-liter Mustangs equipped like California Highway Patrol cruisers, then Camaros with police-performance packages. A few years ago, the Air Force went to Pontiac GTOs and G8 GTs, but they’re already due for replacement by the 426-horsepower Camaro SS. “Every once in a blue moon a car will break while chasing,” says Jones. “We’ve had a car throw a cylinder on the runway, and one had the transmission lock up.” Of the fleet of 12 cars, Jones says, “they don’t have many miles on them, but they’re all zero-to-120-mph.”
This afternoon, Milder is simply shooting touch-and-go landings to stay current. This particular landing is a simulated engine flame-out, and he’s fighting gusty crosswinds that are making the airplane float sideways just above the runway.
“Two feet,” Watson radios, speeding along in Milder’s wake. “One. Left rudder. One and a half. One. Left rudder. Inches. Inches.” The rear tires touch and with a puff of smoke the airplane settles gently on the mains. “Very nice,” Watson says as Milder applies takeoff power to the General Electric F118-101 turbofan. Fifteen seconds later, the aircraft is merely a speck in sky.
To position the G8 for Milder’s next pass, Jones whips around and blasts down the runway at 140 mph. “This sure beats sitting at a desk,” he says, “but I’d rather be flying the airplane.”
Preston Lerner, a frequent contributor, wrote “The Kids Are Trying to Crash” (Dec. 2011/Jan. 2012), which chronicled innovations in radiocontrol model aircraft.