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.

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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.

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