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What it takes to fly spy plane U-2 to the edge of space

About the author

Richard is a science journalist and presenter of the Space Boffins podcast. He edits Space:UK magazine for the UK Space Agency, commentates on launches for the European Space Agency and is a science presenter for BBC radio. You can also follow him on Twitter or Facebook.

The U2 has been keeping tabs from the edge of space since the 1950s (Getty Images)

The U2 has been keeping tabs from the edge of space since the 1950s

The Lockheed U-2 once kept tabs on the might of the Soviet nuclear arsenal – and still flies today. Richard Hollingham talks to one of the skilled few who got to fly it.

In any list of the world’s most impressive jobs, being the pilot of a U-2 spy plane must come near the top. This legendary high-altitude reconnaissance aircraft was designed during the Cold War to capture photos of the Soviet Union. Tested in the Nevada Desert’s top-secret Area 51, it is associated with major diplomatic incidents, space alien conspiracies - and an Irish rock band.

Remarkably, almost 60 years after its first flight and in today’s era of high-definition satellite images, the U-2 is still in service - though it was recently announced that the fleet might be retired in the 2015 fiscal year. Only the best of the best get to fly it. And while social attitudes have changed since the 1950s, nicknames stick.

“Its known as the Dragon Lady,” says Colonel Lars Hoffman. “It’s like a lady when you’re flying up high – it’s a very smooth ride – but it’s more of a dragon when you get back down to low altitude.”

As commander of the US Air Force Test Pilot School at Edwards Air Force Base in the Mojave Desert, Hoffman is almost certainly one of the world’s best pilots. His predecessors at the school include moonwalker Buzz Aldrin and the first man to break the speed of sound, Chuck Yeager. Graduates include the second American in space, Gus Grissom, and the only person to manually fly the Space Shuttle (or any vehicle at all) from Mach 25 to landing, Joe Engle.

Photos of these aerospace legends and their comrades line the school’s corridors. Most of the roads at Edwards, on the other hand, are named after the 200 or so test pilots who have lost their lives here, pushing the boundaries of aviation. This is the home of the “right stuff” and Hoffman looks the part: tall, square-jawed and charming. I have to confess to being a little star-struck.

He graduated from the school in 1997, and has flown everything from the latest fighter planes to the Goodyear blimp. But the single-seater U-2 remains a personal favourite. Flying at 70,000 feet (21 km) – twice the height of commercial airliners – he likens piloting the U-2 to flying in space. When I met him recently at Edwards we talked about this and the secret missions the aircraft fly.

(Getty Images)

The shooting down of a U2 in 1960 over the USSR sparked an international crisis (Getty Images)

The U-2 first flew in 1955 and it is still flying – but has the mission changed?
The mission hasn’t changed but the aircraft has changed considerably. The ones that we fly today were built in the 1980s and were significantly upgraded in the 1990s with new engines, electronics and avionics. The sensors we fly with today are the absolute state of the art. We also have capabilities to network to satellites, to other aircraft and to the ground, so it truly is a 21st-Century weapons system.

What sort of missions is it used for?
It’s used for both tactical and strategic reconnaissance. For example, flying along a sensitive border looking into a country of interest we can take images and we can record signals intelligence that tells us what’s going on in that country, such as North Korea for example. We can also fly over battlefields and, in real time, see the battlefield in high resolution. We can communicate to units on the ground or command centres to tell them exactly what the tactical situation is.

You fly at 70,000 ft – 50,000 ft used to be considered space – how dangerous is it to fly at that sort of height?
There’s a line known as Armstrong’s line – it’s about 50,000 ft (15km). When you’re above that line if you were to lose pressure, your blood would literally boil due to the low pressure. So, we wear a full pressure suit like astronauts wear to provide an extra layer of protection if we were to lose pressure in the cockpit. The cockpits have been pressurised over the years to an altitude of 29,000 feet (9km), that’s like standing on the top of Everest all day. So I’m wearing the full pressure suit, I’m breathing 100% oxygen, my body is feeling like I’m standing on top of a mountain, so it’s quite fatiguing.

What is it like to be at that sort of height where you are flying higher than anyone else on Earth?
It is an amazing feeling. The last long flight I took was to deliver an aircraft from Beale Air Force Base in Sacramento, California, non-stop 12 hours and I landed in the UK. The flight was across Canada, Greenland, Iceland and then dropping into the UK. It was the most amazing experience, those 12 hours, to be detached from humanity on Earth, much like astronauts feel on the International Space Station. It takes about an hour to come down from altitude to land and you have to be alert for the landing because it’s such a physical experience to do. But when you touch down it takes a little while to reconnect with life on Earth.

(Getty Images)

The U2 has clocked up nearly 60 years in operational service (Getty Images)

How do you stay alert for 12 hours isolated in a tiny cockpit high above the planet?
The aircraft flies on autopilot for most of the flight and that’s good because the margin at altitude is very narrow between the maximum Mach that the aircraft can fly before it breaks up and the stall speed. It’s about 10 knots.

It’s also a handful to fly at altitude because the air is so thin – it’s like balancing a pencil on the tip of your finger. You really have to come back down to lower altitude before you can gain control back.

We can eat through tubes in the helmet and most of the time we’re able to listen to music or something to keep our minds occupied, to keep alert. We are given tasks throughout the flight to record readings on instruments, so it keeps you occupied throughout the flight.

Do you feel like an astronaut?
I do actually, putting on the full pressure suit it’s very similar to the suit the astronauts wore when they flew in the Space Shuttle. And that’s the closest thing I can think of to being an astronaut – especially being up there on your own. You really do start to feel removed, or detached, from the Earthlings that are still on the surface of the planet. When you look down and you see an airliner passing below you and it’s half of your altitude, you start to realise how high you are and how alone you are up there. It’s a feeling, I bet, that astronauts experience when they’re on the space station.

A comparable experience to the first Americans in space, who flew alone, the Mercury astronauts?
In the movie The Right Stuff, there’s this scene with John Glenn orbiting the Earth and he did feel alone there for a while. It was communication with the team on the ground that kept him focused, occupied and alert while he was orbiting the Earth. It’s the same sort of thing in the U-2, you can be very detached and can get lonely so you have to keep occupied when you’re going along.

Are you out of the range of surface-to-air missiles or other attack?
In most places we are beyond those surface-to-air missiles but there are areas we fly where we are vulnerable to those, so we have layers of defence to avoid being attacked. [Unsurprisingly he did not reveal where or what those measures were.]

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