The U-2 Dragon Lady remains a modern marvel well over six decades after it first flew. While it has grown massively in terms of flexibility, capability, and weight, one thing remains the same—it's a bitch to land.
To this day, the U-2 needs its own ground force of fast and specially-equipped chase cars driven by other Dragon Lady pilots who help talk down their comrades. The aircraft's massive, glider-like wings make it want to keep flying, especially while in ground effect, and having two tandem sets of centerline wheels to land on—it releases its outrigger wheels on takeoff—only makes things more challenging, among a large number of other factors. Teaching new candidate pilots how to accomplish the task of getting the U-2 from wing-borne flight to safely on the runway, in one piece, is clearly its own art in of itself.
While we have seen a rough U-2 landing before, footage of these clumsy affairs is still rare. That's why we were grinning ear-to-ear when we saw a video on Instagram posted by an incredible photographer and a guy who spent nearly a decade and a half years flying U-2s, Ross Franquemont, better known by his online persona, Extreme Ross.
The video is part of an awesome two-part post about what it takes to become a Dragon Lady driver. Historically speaking, it is an elite and relatively tiny group. The U-2 remains a physically and mentally demanding aircraft to master beyond its landing characteristics, although the landings certainly make for the most exciting video montages. As you can see, bouncing, swerving, wing dragging, and porpoising are all in the student Dragon Lady tamer's repertoire:
And the view from the cockpit of the Dragon Lady on approach in the hands of a master:
Beyond the killer video clips, the experienced U-2 driver gives us a great firsthand account of what it takes to become a U-2 pilot:
"How does someone become a U-2 pilot?"
To begin with, nobody is forced to be a U-2 pilot. It is one of the few airframes in the military which is 100% flown by volunteers (yes I know that just being in the military is a volunteer service but you get the idea). Every single U-2 pilot had to put in the work to apply, study, interview, fly their ass off, and ultimately get accepted into the community.
To start with, the U-2 takes applicants from virtually any airframe, in (almost) any service. Anybody can google U-2 pilot application and get the most recent requirements. If you put in an application, the U-2 recruiter, along with all the other pilots, will vet the applicants, and choose the ones that we felt would be a good fit.
Then comes the interview...Most people dread interviews, especially if they last a few hours. The U-2 interview is 2 weeks. Interviewees travel to Beale for a fun filled 2 week paid vacation. A vacation that culminates in 3 of the most brutal flights you've ever been put through.
The first week involves some of the formal interviews with the U-2 leadership. You get to wear your dress uniform and stand out like a sore thumb as you walk around and have others gawk. You do lots of mobile rides and do some medical tests. Then there's the dreaded "claustrophobia check". A suit technician suits you up in a space suit and teaches you how to eat and drink while you sit in it for a couple hours. It's really to gauge how you respond to the space suit. At the end of week 1, if you haven't gotten yourself kicked off the island, you meet your assigned instructor pilot who's going to guide you through the ball buster Acceptance Flights.
The goal of the acceptance flights is simple, can we teach you to do what is done in this video, in the extremely short time we have you. It's a steep learning curve but those that rise to the challenge, are offered a slot among the community. Tune in next time to learn a little more about these flights and see some examples when things go wrong.
"How does someone become a U-2 pilot?" Part 2
Last post I talked a bit about the process someone goes through to get to their U-2 interview and eventually up to their three Acceptance Flights (we shorten them to AF-1, AF-2, & AF-3)
There is a small group of instructors inside the U-2 training squadron, 1st RS, who take on the role of AF Instructors. It is a separate upgrade for instructors and at any given time, there are only 4-6 AF instructors in the world.
Each interview always uses 2 AF qualified instructors, one is the primary and the other the mobile instructor. The Friday of the first week, the primary instructor takes the interviewee for the entire day and goes through various training to prepare for the first flight. There's cockpit familiarization, hours of powerpoint, hours of white board instruction, watching videos, using the cockpit procedures training, and doing everything possible to mentally prepare the interviewee.
Morning of flight, the primary instructor, the interviewee, and the mobile instructor brief and then head out to the plane. Physiological support technicians help the interviewee get into his seat. They take the rear seat in the two-seater TU-2S because some essential systems can only be manipulated from the front seat.
I think I can speak for every U-2 pilot when I say that the experience of the first takeoff on AF-1, which is flown by the instructor, is one of the most memorable experiences in your life. Shortly after that is the terror of the first landing. It's just as terrifying for the instructor (been there). No matter how many hours of flying you have, you have never experienced anything like the Dragon Lady. The primary instructor spends AF-1 and 2 pushing the student to pick up the landings. Each flight tests mental and physical endurance (just physically flying almost 50 touch and goes is demanding). On AF-3, the primary and mobile instructor switch seats and see what the student has learned.
The flights aren't pretty, but we do get an idea if they are going to be able to pick it up. After some deliberation, an interviewee we agree to accept will be granted a position in the community.
So yeah, it's not exactly like signing up to take the kids on a field trip. The U-2 family at Beale Air Force Base in California truly puts U-2 pilot candidates through a hands-on crucible to make sure they are getting the quality of pilot the aircraft absolutely demands. And it's clearly a wild ride learning to ride the Dragon.
Contact the author: Tyler@thedrive.com