In fact, pilots describe it as like trying to wrestle the plane out of the sky. That’s because the craft only has two centrally placed wheels (the two ‘pogo’ wheels that support the wings are detached at take off), meaning it is like trying to drop a giant bicycle out of the sky. And, because it has a giant 25m (80ft) wingspan and high-lift wings, the craft almost has to stall to get on the ground. Even after touchdown, the craft must drop one of its specially strengthened wingtips to the ground.
To help in this convoluted process the space agency has recently branched out even further from rockets, to cars. It now has a modified Dodge Charger that can be used by the ground-based pilot to chase the ER-2 along the runway as a mobile control centre, calling out the distance to the ground to talk the plane down.
Still, the complexity of the landing is worth it for the science it returns. As a result, Nasa has been carrying out these delicate manoeuvres since 1981, when it first acquired the craft.
But soon, it could be displaced. Technology has moved on and Dryden now makes use of unmanned drones, similar to those widely used by the military. They will be the subject of the next Hyperdrive when we will have a close-up look at Nasa’s Global Hawk.