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May 11, 2010
Reflections of a Former U-2 Pilot
Posted on May 11, 2010 at 6:29 AM
• 26 Comments
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yeah read this this weekend...bubbling skin? yuck.
Just a note reflecting on the longevity of the U2 program. While stationed at Bien Hoa AB, Vietnam from March 1968 to March 1970 the daily routine for many was to was the early dawn takeoff of the U2 aircraft and early evening landing. You could always tell when it was ready to land as it would circle the airfield, very quietly going round and round as it waited for the ground crew and vehicle(s) to catch up at landing and grab the wings that could bend enough to touch the runway without support.
Female U2 pilot(s)? The glass ceiling has been broken.
Seems to me the SR-71 Blackbird was a superior plane. Not only did it fly higher than the U2, it flew faster and further. Also, no one was ever shot down in the SR-71.
She was the 2nd female Air Force pilot to fly the U-2, so the glass ceiling was already broken.
...but, the SR-71 memoirs won't get published for another 30 years...
the evergreen museum http://www.sprucegoose.org/ has an SR-71 - got to touch one! wow!
Yes, I'd say the SR-71 was a better plane in terms of performance than the U-2. However, the U-2 had been updated with data links so some of the intelligence data collected could be utilized while the aircraft was still in flight. That update hadn't occurred with the SR-71 so before using collected intelligence, the aircraft had to land.
What does it say about the genius of Kelly Johnson that he could design both the F-104, which has almost no wing, and the U-2, which is basically a jet powered sail plane?
There have been at least a couple SR-71 memoirs already published... look for the book Sled Driver on Amazon.
Here's a video which shows the practical difficulty of landing this extraordinary plane:
Yes, the SR-71 was a brilliant piece of engineering but which plane was retired first? It appears that the U2 was more useful to the Air Force, all considered.
@ justin heideman
"Also, no one was ever shot down in the SR-71."
How can you be sure? Would any of the operating agencies have told us if any had? I daresay we'd have never learned about Gary Powers' ill-fated flight if the Soviets hadn't needed the public relations coup.
I reckon that the only armed forces that could knock out an SR-71 and would want to were the Russians and they would have been quick to boast about it.
Not sure about any shot down, but have it on good authority that one SR-71 took itself out in early testing.
Something about having an "unstart" in one engine at mach too-fast that makes for a sudden urge to turn left, hard and repeatedly.
The difference is in loiter time. The average SR-71 mission lasted 3hr6min (), U-2 missions, as people have said, lasted dawn to dusk. U-2 didn't have to be as lucky in order to see something worth seeing.
I really liked that article, thanks Bruce!
I was under the impression that the weakness of the SR-71 was the fuel and other equally exotic requirements. According to an article I read, the SR71 had its own fleet of tanker planes, since nothing else ran on the same fuel, and since it leaked badly until properly warmed up, it was always refueled in-flight. By keeping an eye out for those tanker plains, among other signs, you could tell when an SR71 mission was happening and roughly where it was going. In that respect it lost one of the bigger advantages of a plane relative to a spy satellite - predictability. I was also under the impression that the SR-71 needed an absurdly clean runway, so that's another prep sign you could watch for.
The short mission profile also acts to tighten the window of exposure, though it also reduces the amount of warning to get hidden.
It seemed to me that a replacement for the SR-71 (Aurora?) wouldn't really need any greater capabilities, just simpler logistical support.
I highly recommend "Skunk Works: A Personal Memoir of My Years of Lockheed" by Leo Janos, Ben R. Rich
It is a fantastic read!
I think the obvious difference between the SR-71 and the U2 is cost. The SR-71 used exotic everything - special tools just to take bolts off, special lubricants, absurd amounts of special fuel, exotic fuel for starting, and the list goes on.
The U2 is basically a large glider with a single jet engine. It's a much better deal in terms of cost, and is much better suited to the missions we have today.
If we own the sky, there really is no reason why we would need the SR-71. Plus missiles eventually caught up to its amazing speed and altitude, spy satellites closed most of the gap, and it became a dinosaur.
Just me $0.02
The Chicoms shot down several U-2s over the Taiwan Strait and the wreckage is on display at the Military Museum in Beijing.
@George: Didn't know that Vietnam was a staging ground for U2 flights. Why did we, instead of Japan, S. Korea, etc? Why would you use an active war zone, rather than places within our sphere of influence?
Speaking of the U-2 -
"Lt. Col. Joseph Santucci climbed down the ladder of the U-2 Dragon Lady, then felt his legs give way. That’s when he realized how exhausted he was, physically and mentally.
The pilot had just endured nearly an hour of hugging the spy plane’s manual controls to his chest — using every ounce of strength in his 160-pound frame — to keep the jet from plunging into a steep dive."
The comments here are actually more interesting than the article. Thanks!
One book that is a self-published memoir of an SR-71 pilot is "Sled Driver." At over $400, that book is more expensive than I can afford.
One of the most adorable anecdotes from the book is "Aspen 20 speed check."
As other commenters have noted, the main advantage a spy plane has over a satellite is the ability to loiter over the area it watches. Another advantage is being closer to the target. Modern unmanned aerial vehicles can do this with greater ease and more surveillance ability than could the U-2; they need not fly where the difference between stall and overspeed is a few knots. One hundred and fifty pounds of meat, and all of the life-support equipment required, places a huge weight burden upon an aircraft, which modern technology has removed.
James Bamford describes an unusual feature of the U2 ejection seat - it was originally designed to kill the pilot. That Powers survived being shot down is doubly amazing given that little piece of knowledge.
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