U-2 in flight

A US Air Drive U-2 on the California Capital Airshow in Sacramento, September 25, 2021.US Air Drive/Nicholas Pilch

  • For greater than 60 years, the high-flying U-2 has gathered intelligence on hotspots everywhere in the world.

  • In that point, nonetheless, just one active-duty pilot has surpassed 3,000 flying hours within the vaunted Dragon Girl.

  • Here is what it takes to hit that milestone, based on the pilot who did it.

When US Air Drive pilot Lt. Col. “Jethro” first discovered in regards to the U-2, he was decided to get into the highly selective training program.

Piloting the vaunted “Dragon Girl” meant flying “single-seat, high-altitude, sporting the house go well with, alone, unarmed, and unafraid, many miles out of your homebase,” he informed Insider.

Lt. Col. “Jethro” — his name signal, an alias used for safety — went on to finish the coaching program and land his dream job piloting the U-2. It is a distinction that simply 1,079 folks have earned.

U-2 pilot

Lt. Col. Jethro after turning into the second pilot to succeed in 3,000 hours within the U-2 whereas on lively responsibility, at Beale Air Drive Base, September 29, 2021.US Air Drive/Senior Airman Jason W. Cochran

Following 10 deployments between 2007 and 2018, Jethro turned an teacher pilot with the first Reconnaissance Squadron, which is chargeable for coaching all U-2 pilots.

Right this moment, he trains the most recent cadre of U-2 aviators at Beale Air Drive Base in California, placing them via the identical rigorous program he accomplished 15 years in the past.

In September, Jethro turned the second pilot in historical past to succeed in 3,000 hours piloting the U-2 — and the primary to do it whereas on lively responsibility.

He informed Insider about his milestone flight and what it has been wish to spend the equal of 125 days flying the U-2.

‘It by no means will get previous’

U-2 Dragon Lady California Sierra Nevada

A U-2 above California’s Sierra Nevada Mountains, March 23, 2016.US Air Drive/Workers Sgt. Robert M. Trujillo

The jet regularly flies at about 70,000 ft, which provides a novel view of the curve of the earth.

“It is bizarre as a result of your eyes are so used to seeing the horizon being flat that you simply sort of need to step again and have a look at it to go, ‘Hey, it’s curved,'” he says. “It is completely lovely. It by no means will get previous.”

However 70,000 ft can be above Armstrong’s Line, where water boils at body temperature and life will not be sustainable, which requires not solely a pressurized cockpit but additionally a cumbersome full-pressure go well with much like what astronauts use on shuttle missions.

Suiting as much as fly within the Lockheed U-2 is about as shut as a pilot can come to suiting up for a mission to house.

However a go well with that retains you alive at zero stress — and permits women and men pilots to urinate mid-flight — is not straightforward to get into. For that, Jethro and different U-2 pilots have devoted technicians from the Physiological Help Squadron.

U-2 pilot pressure suit

Airmen from the ninth Physiological Help Squadron assist Lt. Col. Jethro into his stress go well with, September 29, 2021.US Air Drive/Senior Airman Jason W. Cochran

The technicians look after the flight fits with the identical consideration plane maintainers give their plane. Watching new U-2 trainees work with the Physiological Help technicians to get out and in of the go well with may be awkward and comical.

“It is a dance, and the primary time you do it you haven’t any concept how that dance works,” says Jethro.

As soon as he is suited up, he will get moved to an enormous reclining chair and hooked as much as oxygen and cooling air. It may be sizzling and tight within the inflated go well with. Strolling up the ladder into the plane and getting seated is one more dance, as U-2 pilots cannot strap themselves into the cockpit whereas sporting the go well with and once more want the technicians’ assist.

The technicians additionally deal with the pilots’ meals orders and most well-liked Gatorade coloration pre-takeoff. Their in-flight meals are pureed and are available in a metallic toothpaste-style tube for ease of use.

“We do a high-protein, low-residue weight-reduction plan,” Jethro stated. “You do not wish to be gassy up there. Because the stress goes down, fuel expands, so it might result in you being uncomfortable within the jet.”

3,000 hours with the Dragon Girl

U-2 pilot in cockpit

Jethro does pre-flight checklists in a U-2, September 29, 2021.US Air Drive/Senior Airman Jason W. Cochran

The USA has been using the U-2 for more than a half-century, flying intelligence-gathering missions over the Soviet Union, Vietnam, China, and Cuba throughout the Chilly Battle. In recent times, it has carried out missions over Iraq and Afghanistan. It is designed to fly in any respect hours and in all climate.

The U-2 has received technical upgrades, however the fundamental cockpit hasn’t modified a lot previously 40 years.

Having iPads and state-of-the-art navigation expertise substitute paper charts and maps might be the largest distinction since Jethro’s early days. Earlier than that technical improve, “You have been fortunate should you knew the place you have been,” he says.

The East Texas native joined ROTC in school to pursue his childhood dream of being a pilot. He began coaching two months after September 11, 2001, had his first solo flight in 2002, and was on monitor to fly a bigger plane, just like the C-135 Stratolifter.

When he graduated from pilot coaching, he nonetheless wasn’t positive precisely what he wished to fly. His squadron commander and mentor, who was a U-2 pilot, recommended the U-2. From there, Jethro did a Google seek for the U-2 pilot utility and started the arduous coaching and choice course of.

U-2 pilot

Jethro in a U-2 at Beale Air Drive Base, September 29, 2021.US Air Drive/Senior Airman Jason W. Cochran

The training program is selective. Candidates who make it via a two-week interview transfer on to coaching in a T-38 Talon, a two-seat supersonic jet coach. After that, remaining candidates transfer onto coaching in an precise U-2, studying to fly, land, and do emergency procedures.

College students’ seventh flight is their first time solo in an U-2. That is adopted by high-altitude coaching with the house go well with, Jethro stated.

After 14 flights, pilots undergo an analysis. Passing which means you are certified on the U-2, and “then we ship you over to mission qual[ification] — one other syllabus the place now that you know the way to fly it, you know the way to defeat threats,” he added. “While you’re completed with that, you might be [a] certified pilot able to go on the street.”

In 2007, as a newly certified U-2 pilot, Jethro was deployed for the primary time. Stationed at Al Dhafra Air Base within the United Arab Emirates, he flew missions over Iraq and Afghanistan.

Flying within the desert, he racked up his first 1,000 hours inside three years. A few of these missions concerned speaking to property on the bottom and making selections whereas flying over unforgiving terrain removed from house, out of radio vary of base.

He recollects one mission on a cloudy day over Afghanistan in August 2007, when two separate helicopters crashed roughly 100 miles from one another. He began speaking to the downed pilots and joined the hassle to choose them up, coordinating with an F-15 to maintain the enemy away.

One pilot and a group effort

U-2 chase car takeoff

Cory Bartholomew aids a U-2 throughout takeoff at Beale Air Drive Base, March 23, 2021.US Air Drive/Airman 1st Class Luis A. Ruiz-Vazquez

The U-2 is a difficult aircraft to fly and even more durable to land. The aircraft’s 105-foot wingspan is ideal for flying excessive however ungainly nearer to the bottom.

The U-2 has additionally been stripped down with a view to fly at excessive altitudes for prolonged intervals — its bicycle-style touchdown gear is supplemented by wing-mounted wheels that detach during takeoff. The pilot’s place within the cockpit additionally makes it more durable to see the runway on method.

These elements imply it takes a whole lot of bodily exertion from the pilot to land, in addition to the coordination of a whole group to get the plane onto the bottom.

One other U-2 pilot in a chase automotive offers instructions over the radio because the returning pilot approaches the runway. As soon as the aircraft involves a cease, now with out its wing-mounted wheels, it tilts to one side.

U-2 instructor pilots pressure suit

Cory Bartholomew, proper, presents Jethro with the three,000-hour patch at Beale Air Drive Base, September 29, 2021.US Air Drive/Senior Airman Jason W. Cochran

When Jethro landed at Beale to conclude a routine proficiency flight on September 29, he’d hit 3,000 hours.

He would have settled for a low-key post-flight beer to have fun the milestone. However his squadron made a present of it, popping out to his airplane and cheering. Additionally there to congratulate him have been his spouse and children, fellow U-2 teacher pilot Cory Bartholomew, and the bottom’s wing commander, who’d additionally been on Jethro’s very first deployment.

They offered him with a bottle of champagne and, consistent with custom, challenged him to launch the cork on to the highest of the hangar whereas maintaining one foot on the bottom and the opposite on the ladder as much as the parked plane’s cockpit.

“I am terrible at that half,” he says. “I have never hit the hangar but.”

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