Military Aviation

U-2 driver explains why Dragon Lady pilots must stall the U-2 in the air in order to land the iconic spy plane

The U-2

The U-2 provides high-altitude, all-weather surveillance and reconnaissance, day or night, in direct support of US and allied forces. It delivers critical imagery and signals intelligence to decision makers throughout all phases of conflict, including peacetime indications and warnings, low-intensity conflict, and large-scale hostilities.

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As we have previously explained since Lockheed’s U-2 spy planes are famously difficult to launch and land because of their extremely poor field of vision, a chase car that can keep up with them is required on the ground.

To fulfill this task the U.S. Air Force (USAF) puts U-2 pilots in the driver seat of fast muscle cars which the service buys at relatively low cost. By talking to the spy planes pilots through runway operations the chase car drivers act as ground-based wingmen for the U-2s in the air.

Noteworthy the U-2 chase car in fact must feature a top speed of 140 mph.

Dragon Lady pilots must stall the U-2 in the air in order to land

As U-2 pilot Maj Steve Randle explained to Peter E. Davies for his book U-2 Dragon Lady Units 1955-90, ‘the major difference between landing our aircraft and any other is in the last two to three feet above the runway. We have to stall the U-2 in the air in order to make it stay on the ground. Any other aircraft you can fly onto the runway, but ours has to be stalled onto the runway. If you stall from more than about three feet, there is a great possibility of incurring structural damage.

‘If you misjudge and don’t stall, the main gear will hit the runway and then, since you’re not out of flying speed, the beast will bounce back into the air and if it bounces more than three to four feet, it will then stall, and risk damage. It’s very critical, and that’s why we have a mobile officer in a chase car calling off altitude. On the stall, the tail gear will settle onto the runway, followed rapidly by the main gear’.

A pilot with the 5th Reconnaissance Squadron advises a pilot landing a U-2 from a chase car on Osan Air Base, Republic of Korea. A U-2’s unique shape adds more of a challenge in landing, as the pilot cannot see the distance of his back wheel to the ground. Chase cars driven by U-2 pilots, act as the eyes from the flightline.

The final moments of landing required energetic use of the control yoke to keep the U-2 level until it ran out of speed. Initiating a 15 degrees per second rate of roll at 200 knots required 85 lbs of force on the yoke.

Landing is a challenging aspect of each flight

In the later U-2R/S versions the situation improved, but the balancing act required for landing was still a challenging aspect of each flight, as Col Mason Gaines, former 99th Expeditionary Reconnaissance Squadron commander at Beale AFB, California, explained;

‘A lot of grappling occurred on the short final and into the flare as speed was bled off and the controls became less effective. Control inputs had to be put in, then immediately taken out, even before they took effect. If you rolled left to correct drift and then left the roll in place until it took hold, you would be too far left and needing to correct back to the right. You were constantly nudging the aircraft back to the centre line.

‘It was not hard to perceive the aircraft tilting left or right after touchdown, so you could tell which way it was leaning, and correct accordingly. Fuel balance and winds were a big factor, and on some gusty crosswind days the wing was to do whatever it wanted to. Once it was down, the wingtip skidded, and could help you come to a stop, with appropriate amounts of opposite rudder. A technique for brake failure [or to combat “weathercocking”] was to put a wing down and hold it down to drag you to a stop. Of course, to a pilot, it was always a point of pride to come to a stop still “flying” the wings and keeping them level until the pogos could be re-installed. The mobile [pilot] could help, but for the most part the [U-2] pilot could do it.’

This print is available in multiple sizes from AircraftProfilePrints.com – CLICK HERE TO GET YOURS. U-2S Dragon Lady “Senior Span”, 9th RW, 99th RS, 80-329

Stall the U-2 in order to land is an ‘art rather than a science’

Having overcome the U-2’s marked reluctance to descend, the pilot had to maintain a steady landing run of up to 3000 ft, for only a few U-2s had braking parachutes. ‘Threshold’, or ‘T-speed’, was calculated by a formula based on the aircraft’s empty weight plus one knot for every 100 gallons of remaining fuel that gave the correct landing speed, which was usually ten knots above the stalling speed. Fuel was measured in gallons, not pounds, and the gauge showed ‘fuel remaining’, rather than the usual overall quantity.

Landing, in Maj Randle’s opinion, was still an ‘art rather than a science’. When the U-2 came to a halt, one wing would dip to the ground and the other would have to be pulled down to a level position so that the pogos could be reinserted. This required (ideally) one crew chief to jump up and grab the wing’s edge, but depending on the balance of remaining fuel in the two outer wing tanks, two strapping crew chiefs might have been required. On narrow taxiways at some of the foreign operating locations (OLs) like Akrotiri, on Cyprus, only one pogo could be inserted, and several groundcrew would ride on the same wing as the ‘pogo’ to keep the aircraft level while taxiing.

U-2 Dragon Lady Units 1955-90 is published by Osprey Publishing and is available to order here.

Photo credit: Lockheed Martin, U.S. Air Force and Screenshot from video

Dario Leone

Dario Leone is an aviation, defense and military writer. He is the Founder and Editor of “The Aviation Geek Club” one of the world’s most read military aviation blogs. His writing has appeared in The National Interest and other news media. He has reported from Europe and flown Super Puma and Cougar helicopters with the Swiss Air Force.

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