July 30, 2005
After 50 years, U-2 spyplane delivers the goods
By Martin Nesirky and Pascal Pinck
OSAN AIR BASE, South Korea (Reuters) - As the matt-black
U-2 spy plane approaches, a sports car surges on to the runway
and gives chase.
Pinocchio-nosed jet, which seems to fill the windshield as it
edges toward the ground.
"Four ... 2 ... 2 ... 1 ... nice job," the driver intones
over a handset, guiding the pilot down while steering the sleek
blue car one-handed at up to 130 mph (210 kph). "Welcome back."
It all sounds -- and feels -- like a one-off stunt for a
big-budget action movie. Yet this chase is repeated many times
a day at a handful of bases dotted strategically around the
It is a vital and unique part of a routine that has kept
one of the world's most hard-to-fly planes airborne near the
edge of space for half a century to gather secret information
for U.S. intelligence and the military.
"We are looking at something somewhere and helping somebody
do their job or their mission in a very direct way," said
Lieutenant-Colonel Scott Johnson, commander of 5th
Reconnaissance Squadron, known as the "BlackCats."
"It is hard to hide from us and that can be a very good
thing, I think," Johnson, 42, from Louisville, Kentucky, told
Reuters during a rare visit to the squadron's high-security
compound inside Osan air base south of Seoul. "It keeps
Originally designed for the Central Intelligence Agency, it
could not be called a reconnaissance plane given the high
secrecy around it. The air force decided to call it a utility
plane and since U-1 was already taken they named it U-2.
The U-2 first flew officially on Aug. 8, 1955, and was soon
conducting top-secret Cold War missions over the Soviet Union
to assess Moscow's missile advances.
On May 1, 1960, that cover was spectacularly blown.
The Soviet Union brought down a U-2 piloted by Gary Powers
and put him on trial. Washington initially said it was a
civilian weather reconnaissance flight off course but President
Dwight Eisenhower later said it was a distasteful but vital
necessity to avoid a Pearl Harbor-style surprise attack.
Powers was later freed in a spy swap in divided Berlin.
TOUCHING THE EDGE OF SPACE
No one denies the U-2's existence these days, although much
of its work remains highly secret.
Pilots with the BlackCats were frank about the dangers of
handling such a delicate and outmoded aircraft. They were
eloquent about flying so high they can see the curvature of the
earth, thunderstorms like popcorn far below and the darkness of
space above. But they were careful not to discuss their
"The specific area of coverage of the U-2 is actually
classified," said Major Brian "Bubba" Dickinson, who is 35
years old and comes from Oscoda, Michigan.
He and Johnson pointed to past missions such as the first
and second Gulf Wars. A U-2 pilot died in a crash in the United
Arab Emirates in June after a mission over Afghanistan.
The U-2 has probably been deployed to monitor every
conflict involving the United States in some way in the past 50
"I think there's little doubt that the U-2 continues to
operate against targets like Iran and like North Korea," said
John Pike, director of Globalsecurity.org, a defense policy
think-tank. "It gives a persistent surveillance capability that
drones and spy satellites simply don't provide."
North Korea -- which says it has nuclear weapons and is
building more -- regularly accuses the United States of flying
U-2s to peer at strategic targets on its territory from near
the fortified Demilitarised Zone that bisects the Korean
Wherever the U-2 is headed when it takes off, the
pre-flight routine is identical and rigorous.
"It starts hours before I even show up for work," said
Major Robert "Crash" Creedon, 41 and from Newbury Park,
At Osan, civilian and military maintenance teams check the
plane and its top-secret sensors inside one of the BlackCat
hangars. Look carefully and you might also spot a real black
mascot cat known as Oscar on the prowl.
Elsewhere, intelligence and operations officers brief the
pilot, who then heads for medical checks with physiology
specialists and crucial help putting on the $250,000 spacesuit
that will keep him -- or her -- alive.
There are three women among about 80 U-2 pilots worldwide,
including Major Merryl "Hubu" David, a 34-year-old former navy
helicopter pilot from the Bronx. The spacesuit deadens the
senses and reduces mobility but pilots adapt.
"I don't find it that bad," said David. "I guess it's like
putting yourself in a suit and putting yourself in a telephone
booth for a couple of hours."
Pilots breathe pure oxygen in their suits for an hour
before take-off and then throughout the mission to reduce
nitrogen in the blood and so cut the risk of the bends.
Looking like an astronaut or cosmonaut heading to a rocket,
the pilot then walks slowly to the plane for pre-flight checks.
"STILL KICKING BUTT"
Take-off is another carefully choreographed team effort.
The wings are so long and full of fuel they droop at the ends
and both are supported by unicycle-like "pogo" wheels that fall
away as the plane leaves the ground.
The chase car roars along in its wake and a truck is not
far behind to collect the pogos as the U-2 climbs out of sight.
"About the first hour of the sortie it's fairly
task-intensive with setting up all of the sensors, completing
all the checklists," said Dickinson.
Precisely how high the U-2 flies is classified but it is
more than twice as high as a commercial plane.
"You see so much of the world," he said. "There is
something about being up there by yourself that is truly
Pilots have time to read or study intermittently for
several hours while the plane is on auto-pilot but they are in
regular contact with the ground and can switch course.
The final hour of the flight is probably the most demanding
for the fatigued pilot. The plane has to land on one rear wheel
and effectively glide to a halt. The pilot needs the car to
count down as the runway cannot be seen over the plane's long
The military says the U-2 remains vital even though it is
older than any of its pilots and is difficult to handle.
"We're still doing what we're doing, and this is after 50
years," said David. "Even with our antiquated systems, we're
still kicking butt."