In the U.S. Air Force, learning to fly the high-altitude U-2C reconnaissance airplane was a rare experience. No two-place trainer existed for the U-2 student in the 1960s. With its spectacular 80-foot wingspan, removable outrigger “pogo” wheels under the wings, tandem main landing gear, wing skids at the wingtips, and a powerful Pratt & Whitney J75 jet engine in a relatively slim fuselage, the U-2 was a handful. And every flight was solo.
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As a young Air Force captain at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in Arizona in January 1967, I had made the first five qualification flights at low altitude, learning how to take off and land. Because control at low speed was marginal and landing required a full stall, all landings were assisted by another U-2 pilot driving a Chevrolet El Camino with a souped-up engine. The driver raced down the runway behind the landing airplane, radioing height information: “One foot…six inches…hold it off…. Good touchdown!”
On my sixth U-2 flight I had taken the airplane above 60,000 feet, wearing my skin-tight MA-1 partial-pressure suit, which was designed to keep me alive in case of a depressurization. Before descent and landing, the training called for an engine shutdown at high altitude, so the pilot would be familiar with depressurization, suit inflation, and sluggish flight controls. After restarting the engine at lower altitude, I returned home and landed uneventfully.
Six days later, on a February day in 1967, I climbed into the U-2 for my seventh training flight, a mission of four-plus hours involving celestial navigation and photo reconnaissance that would for the first time take me away from the area around Davis-Monthan. The cockpit was so cramped I felt like I was putting the airplane on rather than getting into it. When everything was hooked up, I started the engine and taxied toward the active runway.
“Spicy 42, cleared for takeoff when ready. Winds 090, six knots.”
I began the takeoff procedure: Roll onto the active runway and hold. Show the ejection seat pins to the driver of the chase vehicle (another U-2 pilot) to signify that I had armed the ejection system. Pump and hold the brakes. Throttle to 80 percent. Check all instruments. Tracker camera on. Release the brakes and push the throttle smoothly to the gate.
On takeoff, the acceleration was so powerful it was like being launched by a gigantic rubber band. The steep climbout and departure went fine. After reaching 60,000 feet, I got busy with the mission’s activities.
About two hours later, I was cruising serenely, straight and level over the western states. I had just taken a final celestial shot of the sun. I had amassed a grand total of 15 hours in the U-2, and despite the constant attention the airplane required, I was finally able to gaze at the snowy white, unbroken deck of clouds below.
BANG! The airplane produced a violent, high-frequency vibration, with an immediate sensation of deceleration. On the cabin altimeter, the needle that indicated the atmospheric pressure in the cockpit spun rapidly toward the same altitude as the airplane. Simultaneously with the engine flameout, the capstans of my partial-pressure suit inflated, squeezing my torso in their grip and forcing me into a stiff, hunchback posture.