Air Force U-2 “Dragon Lady” spy plane pilot rescues distressed civilian airman
You might not think a 66-year-old spy plane that flies top-secret missions to faraway places would also double as a rescue plane in a pinch, but that’s exactly what happened earlier. this month over Northern California. On February 8, an Air Force pilot flying the U-2 Dragon Lady, an all-black spy plane that entered service in 1956, served as a flying relay station between air traffic control and a pilot civilian with engine problems. After about 30 minutes, the civilian landed safely, all because the U-2 had the altitude to receive messages to and from the civilian aircraft in peril.
“Due to the altitude of the civilian aircraft, Travis [Air Force Base] couldn’t hear them or see them on their radar,” the U-2 pilot, identified only as Maj. Heatherman, said in an Air Force press release. “As a U-2 pilot, I was flying twice as high as most airliners, so I had really good line of sight with my radios.”
It’s true: the defining trait of the U-2 has always been how high it can fly. When the aircraft was first developed in the early 1950s, the CIA needed an aircraft capable of performing long-range reconnaissance missions to track what the Soviet Union and its satellite countries were doing. According to the Smithsonian, recent breakthroughs in film technology have also made it possible to take high-resolution photographs at very high altitudes, where it would be difficult for the Soviets to intercept with missiles and fighter jets.
“Trying to understand what the Soviets were doing was paramount,” former U-2 pilot, retired Colonel Michael “Lips” Phillips, said on the Fighter Pilot Podcast. Phillips explained how famed aircraft designer Kelly Johnson was inspired by the F-104 Starfighter, a needle-like interceptor aircraft with stubby wings.
“He said, ‘I can put glider wings on this thing, I can get it high in the atmosphere, and it can fly halfway around the world,'” Phillips said. “It can give you pictures of whatever you want. He did this on a napkin.
The U-2 often flies at 70,000 feet (13 miles) and above, while commercial airliners typically fly at around 31,000 and 38,000 feet (6 to 7 miles), according to Time. At this height, you can see the curve of the Earth, the movement of the night sky across the planet and the tiny shape of the jetliners below you, said a U-2 pilot, identified only by Major Chris, in 2020. This was the altitude Heatherman was flying to shortly after takeoff from Beale on February 8.
About 20 minutes after taking off, Heatherman heard a distress call from an engine-out civilian plane over Lake Berryessa, about 35 miles west of Sacramento. Heatherman found that Travis Air Force Base air traffic control was coordinating the situation, but due to the height of the civilian aircraft, the base had difficulty following it. The U-2 pilot used his even greater altitude to relay radio messages to the civilian airman. About 30 minutes after the call, the California Highway Patrol reported that they had found the civilian aircraft safely landed in a field near the lake.
Although Heatherman probably only used a radio to support the other pilot, it is only one of the many communications and surveillance technologies the Dragon Lady can carry. Just as Kelly Johnson had anticipated, the U-2 is basically just a huge glider capable of carrying large payloads of sensors, cameras, and other tools to gather information for the US government.
“It’s just a glider with a big engine stuffed out of its ass,” Phillips said. “The reason it’s still used every day is because all the crap we have about the most sophisticated spy satellites in the world can be put on a U-2. And the bad guys don’t know when that’s happening.
Unlike satellites, which fly over Earth in regular, predictable patterns, the U-2 can fly whenever a commander needs it, meaning the enemy can’t hide from it, Phillips explained.
“The handful of planes we have, we have about three dozen left, they fly every day,” Phillips added. “Somewhere in the world, a government agency needs something, and the U-2 is flying all the time.”
Phillips himself felt lucky to experience such high demand. He said he spent time on missions so secret that he and his fellow pilots could only wear civilian clothes when stationed at airbases in foreign countries.
“It was a lot of geopolitical intrigue and we just thought we were James Bond, you know?” he said.
Top-secret espionage and geopolitics aside, Mayday’s California call shows that the Dragon Lady sometimes doesn’t need to travel around the world to do a good job.
“Fortunately, the aircraft landed safely in a field with no injuries, and Maj. Heatherman then continued with his mission,” Air Force Maj. Dudderar said in the news release. “There is a common bond between all pilots, whether military or civilian. We will all lend a hand if we can help in a difficult situation.
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