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.