Killer at 70,000 Feet

The occupational hazards of flying the U-2

A pilot takes a self-portrait aboard the U-2. The Air Force is retrofitting the airplane’s cockpit so it is pressurized to a more comfortable 15,000-foot equivalent. (Lt. Col. (Ret.) Jeff Olesen)
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Things are changing slowly but surely at Beale, and the veteran pilots are telling Jersey they can see a difference in the way the young pilots are being treated and educated about DCS. “A lot of them would have been out of the Air Force and out of a career, kind of like Kevin Henry,” says Jersey. While they may not be able to return to the U-2 cockpit, many pilots who have suffered severe DCS are now flying lower in other aircraft.

Henry retired shortly after being grounded. These days, he trains U-2 pilots at Beale as a contractor, running them through the simulators and showing them how to operate, among other things, the autopilot. The Crew Resource Management department even put together an animation of his near-death experience to show rookies just how dangerous DCS can be. Despite the changes being made to the U-2 program to protect its pilots, Henry points out that pilots are still flying very long missions at 70,000 feet. He’s skeptical of claims that they are safer now than they were in 2006. He hands out copies of the FAA brochure to all his students, just in case.

Mark Betancourt is a freelance writer, filmmaker, and radio producer living in Washington, D.C. His last feature was “World War II: The Movie” (Feb./Mar. 2012).


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