The Stratospheric Flyers

First published in FLYER magazine, October 2020.

The Stratospheric Flyers

A small group of US Air Force aviators are flying regularly from the Cotswolds, launching themselves to the edge of space in one of the most unique aircraft the world has ever seen.

“With most aircraft, once you touchdown, the hard work is often done and you can give a sigh of relief. But in the U-2, once you land the aircraft (considered the most difficult to land in the USAF inventory), you are still flying, keeping the wings level until you come to a complete stop.”

“After an hour in the pattern you’ll often come back soaking wet and exhausted”, explains Merc, the one thousand and twenty eighth pilot to solo the U-2 Dragon Lady.

Merc and his colleagues are part of the 99th Expeditionary Reconnaissance Squadron, flying out of RAF Fairford in Gloucestershire. This detachment of people and aircraft comes from Beale Air Force Base in Northern California.

Merc and his colleague Crash also own a share in a 1964 Bonanza S35 alongside Tom Rosen, a former TWA Captain. Merc began his career flying King Airs fitted with remote sensing equipment, visiting places like Iraq before joining the USAF and flying the B-1 Lancer. Crash flew the KC-135 tanker and spent four years flying the MQ-1 and MQ-9 unmanned aircraft systems. Alongside the U-2, they also fly the T-38 Talon.

Both Merc, Crash and their colleagues were able to tell their stories of flying the U-2, whilst drawing many parallels with general aviation flying.

The Jet Powered Taildragger

First flown on the 1 August 1955, the U-2 is a high-altitude/near space reconnaissance and surveillance aircraft with some unique characteristics. The pencil-thin fuselage, which began life as the F-104 Starfighter, houses a General Electric F118-101 turbofan, a derivative of the F110, which powers the F-16. This fuselage and engine combination is squeezed between a 104ft, high aspect ratio wing. Add to that a single centreline undercarriage leg with a steerable tailwheel at the back, and you’ve got a jet that wouldn’t look out of place at Lasham, let alone at some of the United States Air Force’s most closely guarded bases.

A special fuel, known these days as Jet Propellant Thermally Stable (JPTS), was sourced for the U-2’s high operating altitudes. The source of the fuel, along with the quantities purchased, caused a shortage of lighter fluid in the USA during the 1950s, as tanker loads of it were purchased in secrecy. Official government documentation from the 1980s confirms this. The U-2’s mission necessitates that it be a light aircraft, which comes at the expense of many of the systems that other military pilots might take for granted. Merc explains one aspect of the Dragon Lady’s simplicity, “The U-2s main fuel tanks, in order to keep weight down, are not fitted with any measurement devices. Like many general aviation aircraft, the fuel tanks are dipsticked before flight and a fuel computer analyses the flow and tells me what I should have remaining. Only the 100-gallon sump tank contains a float valve and can give any sort of reading to the pilot.”  

‘Two Point’ Landings

The U-2’s tailwheel hangs from a vertically mounted oleo. The ‘tyre’ feels like a similar material to the polyurethane wheels found on a skateboard, so contact with the ground can produce strong vibrations. Lockheed ‘Skunk Works’ legend Kelly Johnson, who designed the U-2, initially thought that wheeler landings would be the most successful way to land the U-2. However, test pilots soon found this wasn’t achievable, so two-pointer and tail first landings were decided upon. The taildragger pilots amongst us will be able to recall our first attempts at landing, with the benefit of two main landing gear legs, rather than just one!

Merc explained more about operating the U-2 on the ground, “taxiing is one of the hardest things that you do in the U-2. The wings are long and low so you have to be very conscious of clearance on the tips, which is made even more difficult with the tailwheel’s 6.5 degree turning radius either side of the central position.” No full swivel tailwheels that we’re used to.

The very small vertical stabiliser and lack of any power-assisted flight controls make the U-2 a very tricky aircraft to land, especially in crosswinds. The pilots all agreed that the Dragon Lady flies wonderfully in the high atmosphere, but down low is where you earn your money. Crash describes, “Driving the aircraft at the ground can feel very unnatural. At idle the motor produces a lot of excess thrust. That coupled with the massive amount of lift the wings create requires you to hang everything out to develop enough drag to land. Since everything on this jet is manual and it stalls at such a slow speed the control inputs needed in the flare are massive. Landing this jet can truly be an athletic event.” The U-2 also features the all-trimming tail, found in Mooneys. Instead of operating a trim tab on the elevator, the entire empennage is angled up or down. This cleaner design allows for less drag as the pilot is optimising angle of attack, rather than deflecting a control surface.

GA Expands Your Perspective

Merc and Crash both agreed that general aviation flying helps their military careers. “You develop different skills and airmanship and through GA flying you expand your toolbox of skills and your overall perspective of being a pilot”, said Merc. Crash agreed, “You certainly have to plan missions more thoroughly in GA. If you’re flying the T-38 you can light the afterburners and outclimb any mountain range, but in the Bonanza you’ve really got to have a plan in place for that kind of situation.”

For Merc, Crash and Tom the Bonanza is great at moving friends and family around the States. Tom first locked eyes on one when learning to fly and always considered it to be the Cadillac of aircraft.

Their Bonanza is fully IFR equipped and, “It really offers us a better instrument flying platform than either the U-2 or the T-38”, explained Crash.

With all these difficulties, what attracts these aviators to the Dragon Lady?

Goggs, a former C-17 pilot, explained that the community of people involved in the operation of the jet sold it to him. “It’s a team effort from getting you suited up in the jet to landing back after a mission. You might be sat on your own at 70,000ft but there’s dozens of people involved with every flight that have helped get you there. It’s a big human footprint for a relatively small jet.”

However, to be in the privileged position of sitting in that seat at 70,000ft you must pass an intense and comprehensive two-week interview process. It involves a corporate-style job interview, a 45-minute claustrophobia check in the $250,000 pressure suit, chase car rides to experience the U-2 up close, followed by three flights in the two-seat TU-2S. All the while your every move, word and reaction is being watched by everybody around you.

That first flight was “humbling”, said Touchdown, a former C-130 pilot. Kosmo recalled his experience, “It was like being water-boarded and punched in the groin at the same time. The pressure suit is so restricting and you’re pulling the yolk right into your body to land, trying to do things that don’t make sense, like stall the aircraft onto the ground from 2-3 feet up.” Merc explained the point of these check flights, “You’re not proving you can grease the landing from the first approach, you’re proving that you’re trainable, that you can become student again.”

Merc was the only one of the group with a prior tailwheel endorsement on his PPL, with others having flown a few taildragger hours either with friends or flying clubs. Crash managed his first ever tailwheel circuits in an RV only a few weeks prior to his interview, but said, “Nobody can do it on that first flight; you can’t land it and it’s a totally different feeling in the pattern. But you’re just focused on your ability to show progression at the right rate.”

Occupational Hazards

It is a widely accepted belief that you lose 15 IQ points when wearing the pressure suit. “You have to consciously think about breathing, whilst working the systems, radio and flying the jet”, said Merc. For all it’s apparent simplicity, the aircraft actually warns the pilots when they are hyperventilating and the Cabin Environment Reduction Effort (CARE) upgrade maintains a cabin pressure equivalent to 13,000-14,000ft, down from 30,000ft before the upgrade. The CARE upgrade wasn’t just for comfort, it was actually necessitated due to a risk of decompression sickness as U-2 pilots began flying longer, more frequent missions. 

And the bends isn’t the only threat. U-2 pilots even carry radiation dosimeters, as they fulfil the requirements for being classed as radiation workers. Checking for ‘solar events’ is on the U-2 meteorological team’s checklist. Life in the stratosphere is very different from life in the circuit.


From brakes-off to lift-off and short finals to brakes on, the pilot is shadowed by a chase car known as the ‘Mobile’. The Mobile is a high-performance car (in this case a V8 Dodge Charger) driven by another U-2 pilot who is fulfilling the ‘wingman’ principle found elsewhere in military jet operations. Your ability to turn and see your aircraft and surroundings is very limited in the U-2 so the mobile acts as a second pair of eyes whilst taxiing, taking off and landing, and they need to be sharp. To be effective as possible, the Mobile needs to see what might be about to happen next, but with enough time for him to communicate it to the pilot and the pilot to react. That could be a drift off the centreline, or a sudden balloon that could bring the jet thumping down from 15ft.

If you’re reading this you’ll likely understand the importance of carrying out pre-flight walkaround checks before flying your aircraft. However, for U-2 pilots it works a little differently. So complex and time consuming is the process of getting into the pressure suit and the difficulty of moving once in it, the responsibility for walkaround checks is delegated to the mobile driver. They visually inspect the jet all the way out to the runway, perform a FOD check along the first few thousand feet and then signal that all is okay to the pilot.

Staying Occupied

With missions lasting, often in excess of eight hours and not involving any dynamic manoeuvring like other single seat military jets, how do U-2 pilots stay occupied? Lt Col Staniszewski, Commander of the 99th ERS, said, “The view is the best thing, seeing the Northern Lights and other spectacles like that is an amazing feeling. Also, the lack of sound surprised me the most, if you hold your breath it is serenely peaceful and the ride so very smooth.”

Other pilots describe the white-out when flying over horizon-to-horizon clouds, leading to a feeling of being stationary at 70,000ft. Even though you’re flying above 90% of the atmosphere, certain events can lead to turbulence. Touchdown, an airline pilot and the only U-2 reservist, explained what can happen in Eastern Asia, “There is a local phenomenon where the outside air temperature in the stratosphere can suddenly change. If you translate that into the reaction of an autopilot, a temperature change can be regarded as a change in density and therefore altitude, so the aircraft can suddenly try to climb or descend.

“Turbulence, or situations like that, are often a time to hand fly the aircraft. Many of the older, wiser, pilots tell you never to look at the wingtips in turbulence…”

Image © USAF 501st CSW

Food is of critical importance and pilots are provided with a wide range of tube foods, which are eaten through a straw that penetrates the collar of the helmet. Having sampled many, I can confirm that they genuinely taste great, especially the truffle macaroni cheese and apple pie!

Merc explained that, “Everything is a chore when you’re up there. Moving is very hard and leaves you out of breath, so if there’s something in your bag that you need you starting thinking to yourself, do I really need that?

“We have a grabbing tool for items that we drop on the cockpit floor, it’s not uncommon to spend half an hour trying to retrieve something like a pen or tube food from by your feet. Another good activity is to keep track of diversion options by tuning ATIS for fields along your route. With a glide ratio of around 23:1, you’ve generally got a few options.” On paper, at least, an engine flameout at 70,000ft could give a U-2 pilot two hours of glide time and cover over 240 nautical miles over the ground.

Those kinds of numbers give you a real appreciation for just how high these pilots are flying. They are still regularly occupying a portion of the atmosphere that remains as unexplored and dangerous as parts of the deepest oceans. They’re doing so in an aircraft that, necessitated by the job it does, is no more technologically advanced many of the light aircraft we fly. They are a humble and proud group of aviators; just don’t ask them to level-off in a climb…

Thank you to Lt Col Staniszewski and the officers and airmen of the 99th Expeditionary Reconnaissance Squadron for their time in making this article possible.

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