Near Space Flight: U-2 Spy Plane Preparation and Operation

first published on February 9, 2018 by

Footage taken during the pre-flight preparation, inspection, and in-flight operation of a U-2s Spy Plane operating at near space altitudes. All documentation and footage in the article below is listed as unclassified information, and has been cleared for release by the United States Department of Defense. The U-2s Spy Plane is a single-seat, single-engine, high-altitude/near space reconnaissance and surveillance aircraft providing signals, imagery, and electronic measurements and signature intelligence, or MASINT.

Spy Plane Pilot

When it comes to intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, (ISR) the U-2s Dragon Lady is queen. She is flown at 70,000 feet, (21,000m) and is capable of taking high resolution photographs of targets on the ground in order to support commanders that may be conducting operations in the future. The platform was first flown by the Central Intelligence Agency during the Cold War to gain intelligence on the Soviet Union, China, Vietnam, and Cuba. Today, the Dragon Lady is still flown in a number of covert operations around the world, as well as supporting ground combat operations and disaster relief. The United Kingdom and the Republic of China are the only other countries to have flown the platform, and they have only done so under the strict supervision of the Central Intelligence Agency and the United States Air Force.

Over 50 years after the platform’s first flight, it is still in use today. The reason for this, is that it is capable of doing things that reconnaissance satellites cannot, like changing objectives in flight on short notice. There were originally plans to retire the aircraft entirely in 2012. This was delayed until 2014. Lockheed Martin pitched an unmanned variant of the aircraft, and it was unable to gain traction with the United States Air Force. Instead, they extended the life of the aircraft again until the end of Fiscal Year 2018. The Dragon Lady has outlived its Mach 3 replacement, The SR-71, by almost 20 years.

U-2S is one of the few planes to service the United States Air Force for over 50 years, coming in just behind the Boeing B-52. There is a lot that goes on behind the scenes in order to keep this platform operational. From daily maintenance on the aircraft, to hours of physical checkups and preparation to ensure that the pilots are capable and protected while flying at the edge of space. This is what we are officially allowed to tell you about it.

Spy Plane Pilot 3

Beale Air Force Base in California is the home of the U-2s Spy plane. Here, high-altitude/near space reconnaissance and surveillance is a daily mission conducted by a number of pilots who arrive hours before their flights in order to receive mandatory physical checkups. Their meals are logged, their blood pressure is taken, and they are looked over by an ear, nose, and throat doctor before they are cleared for flight. In order to work as a U-2s pilot, individuals are required to keep themselves in top physical shape. If they fail to meet those standards, their bodies are not capable of withstanding the rigors of near-space flight.

After their physical checks have been completed, pilots are moved to a room where they are dressed. A number of highly trained airmen are required to assist with this process, and the pilot is put into a suit that closely resembles what you would see an astronaut wearing during space flight. This full pressure suit is designed to protect the pilot, and provide them with oxygen for the duration of their flight. Once the pilot is in the suit, they will remain inside of it until they return to the ground, where a team of airmen will once again assist them in the removal of the suit after it has been depressurized.

Pressure Suit

Next, the pilot is transported to the aircraft, and strapped in. A series of pre-flight checks and operations are conducted by the pilot, the ground crew, and a second pilot who is there to assist with the launch and recovery of the spy plane. Due to its bicycle style landing gear, and the position of the cockpit on the aircraft, a second pilot is needed in order to get the aircraft both into the air, and safely back onto the ground. The location of the cockpit makes it completely impossible for the pilot to get a look at the ground as he is taking off, and as he is landing. The second pilot will drive in a high performance chase vehicle behind the aircraft, and assist the flight pilot in his take-off and landing by feeding him information over a radio. This take off and landing procedure alone awards the Dragon Lady the title of being one of the most difficult aircraft in the world to pilot.

Once in the air, the pilot will be on his own for the duration of his mission at 70,000 feet, flying at the edge of space. At this altitude, the pilot will often see a natural occurring phenomenon known as the “Terminator Line.” This line, also sometimes referred to as the “Gray Zone,” or the “Twilight Zone,” is a fuzzy line that separates day from night on the ground. At this altitude, the pilot is also fully capable of proving that the Earth is indeed, not flat. Sorry Flat Earthers, but the video below is just more evidence that you’re delusional.

Terminator Line

The video below this is approximately 13 minutes long. It has been cleared for public viewing by the United States Department of Defense, and the United States Air Force. The video comes to us courtesy of the United States Air Force, and Andrew Arthur Breese. If you would like to know more about becoming a U2s pilot for the United States Air Force, you can find recruiting information at this link.


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