Sunday, August 31, 2008

Their Mistress the Dragon Lady

In ten minutes I met seven of "them". William Burrows in "Deep Black" discussed the history of airborne reconnaissance and the role the Dragon Lady has played over the years. He doesn't talk about "them". Ben Rich in "Skunk Works" discussed how the Dragon Lady came into service. Again the book is silent on "them". Ernest Gann in "Black Watch" paid them great tribute but simply calls these pilots "The Men who Fly America's Spy Planes". To me they are a group of this Country's solitary heroes. Front line defender's yet a group of aviators we know very little about. One thing is clear, they are in love with their mistress. This morning I spent three hours with these seven heroes and their mistress gaining a perspective on their lives and their mission I will always remember. I hope my reflections will do them justice.

I know a lot about the U-2R, a.k.a The Dragon Lady. Developed in secret by Lockheed in the 1950's and since that time has been the work horse of the airborne reconnaissance community. From my desk at work I have studied her systems and performance, working from what knowledge I could glean from manuals, reports, previous studies, and fleeting conversations with an occasional "them" who would unwittingly stray into my cubicle. No paper trail can tell you about the people and their relationship with their amazing machine. Until someone opens the jar you may never know you are living in a vacuum.

She looks awkward, their mistress the Dragon Lady. But they don't call her that preferring to use shorter and an even more intimate moniker referring to her simply as "The Deuce". She is not as large as I envision, small in fact. Her wings are long in perspective but narrow and placed too far back on her body. Her dorsal fin emerges almost as an after thought. An ad hoc triangular stabilizer cut too large from a sheet of cardboard and quickly attached to the rear of a skinny paper airplane with some tape. Lifeless, she lays in the hanger, leaning to one side as if long discarded by a child no longer interested in their older toys.

My intimate time with this broken toy was cut short. Time was of the essence. Air Force 1 was taking off at 11:30 so the Deuce and pilot would have to be airborne by 10:30. We moved to a make-shift operations center within the base of the operations facility. Here all the equipment the U-2 team was using was stored. When the U-2 deploys, a lot of support is necessary. For this trip there were seven pilots, two life support technicians, and four maintenance personnel. The six pilots arrive in three T-38s while the seventh pilot flys the U-2. The maintenance personnel flew in via commercial airlines. During any operation there always has to be a U-2 pilot, or Deuce driver, on duty in the control tower, a back-up pilot, and one on the ground driving the chase vehicle acting as the supervisor of flight or SOF. When traveling between airfields, this means a minimum of five are required, plus the deuce driver. In the operations center I met the team. I wish I could remember their names but I will never forget what they do.

The heroes as they emerged from the hanger into base operations were all different. Some tall, some short, some clean shaven, and others with a cropped military regulation mustache. The Deuce is apparently not picky. All wear their rank, four majors, two captains, and one Lieutenant Colonel. Each has a squadron patch on their left shoulder and their Dragon Lady patch on their right one. All wear the operations squadron patch except for the Colonel. The Air Combat Command or ACC shield is on the front of their flight suits along with their name tag. Some display their call sign, some the name their parents gave them. With the knowledge that they have to beat Air Force 1 onto the runway and into the air they get right to business.

I stood close as they reviewed their mission plans. Not unlike countless missions flown before them, but always thrilling to hear them talk. The two T-38 drivers had to get out early to head to the next location to prepare to catch the U-2 when she lands. A captain was scrambling to improvise a chart with a road map of the local area firmly attached to a piece of cardboard. Today's driver would use this to gain his bearing during the mission. As it turns out today's mission is an easy one. Get airborne, climb to 12,0000 feet, circle for an hour, then preform a fly-over at Ft. McNair at 12:06 pm at an altitude of 1,000 ft. Then begin to climb and turn left over the Pentagon proceeding to the next destination where the first two crews in the T-38s will be preparing.

Outside base operations the flight-line is busy. Helicopters buzz back and forth in an extremely annoying fashion, a flight of 10 approach from the south and land. Three F-16s takeoff with afterburners blazing. Air Force 1 is towed from her hanger to pre-flight and await the arrival of the President. The two T-38 crews move to their aircraft and begin pre-flight for an immediate departure. Before me the crew of a PACAF 707 from Hickam AFB smoke cigarette's as they await their passengers. To my right, the Dragon Lady is pushed from her hanger from behind. She still looks pathetic. A broken and discarded toy being moved out of the garage. One florescent orange training wheel props up her left wing. They call this a pogo stick, another discarded toy, but this one has a purpose and it will drop from her wing on takeoff. In the mean time, three maintenance crew members ride on the wing and physically use their weight to put pressure on the wing to hold down the pogo stick to keep the U-2 balanced. A second pogo stick for the right wing is missing. This stick will fly with the T-38s so it has already been loaded and will be available at the next location.

Lt Col Trout is in charge of the operation today. He is annoyed that they must rush to get airborne before Air Force 1. Also, flight line maintenance was late pushing the Dragon from her lair so they are behind schedule. With any military operation there are always periods of intense activity followed by long periods of wait. As we await the arrival of an escort to take the Deuce to the end of the runway where she will prepare for take off there is time to talk with the three pilots who did not fly out already. The first is a Captain. He will take position in the control tower. He explains to me quite clearly that until there is a computer that can take responsibility in the air and make decisions that take the Deuce outside flight parameters to keep her in the air, he will not be replaced by an unmanned vehicle. I tried to explain to him that although I have studied the differences between UAVs and the U-2, which makes me a pencil pusher with some unknown agenda, in my opinion the U-2 wins. I don't think he believes I'm telling the truth.

Next I talk with Maj Eainello. He is the pilot for today's mission. From our conversation I get the feeling he has been flying the Deuce for a long time. Later I find out he has been flying her since flight school, over thirteen years. There is talk of children and of a pilot's dad, who, like me, is an observer of today's operations. The Maj Eainello tells him that his son is a "Good Stick" and a pleasure to have in his squadron. Maj Eainello has kids as well that are now teenagers and he congratulates me when he discovers I have a new born daughter at home.

Next I talk with Lt Col Trout. He will be our tour guide for the remainder of today. He knows some of the military where I work and we quickly identify "Gumby" as someone we both know and have worked with before. If there was more time we could have identified more, like Jabba and Jungman. As the U-2 is pushed out to the runway we get inside the chase vehicle, a small flight line pickup truck. As we wait for Maj Eainello, who we will be transported to the Dragon Lady, two T-38s, in tight formation, streak into the sky.

Now we are driving across the flight line seeking clearance and testing the radios as we go. We talk with the U-2 Captain in the tower and with the maintenance crew preparing the Deuce. Moments later we pull up to her nose. She is hooked to several life support devices, a power generator and an air cart, and some of her panels are open. Not the classified ones. The maintainers move around her in a deliberate fashion. Lt Col Trout begins a walk around the aircraft as if he were the pilot today. In the U-2 community, two pilots must prepare for flight. Since normally one will be wearing a space suit, the second, performs many of the functions for the pilot who will fly on this day. This includes the pre-flight checks. I have no doubt it is this teamwork and trust that makes the U-2 community a unique fraternity. As Lt Col Trout prepares the Dragon, Maj Eainello prepares by donning his life support equipment with the help of a life support technician.

When everything seems ready we shake Maj Eainello's hand and wish him luck. As he shakes my hand he once again congratulates me on the birth of my little girl. He then climbs the steps to his cockpit. He takes the steps two at a time. He is the director of operations for all U-2 missions flown in the world and he loves his job. Even though today's mission is short, today he gets to be closer to his mistress, wearing only a flight suit instead of the restrictive space suit which normally separates him from the controls and his great love. This child has not discarded this toy. There is excitement on his face as he works through his checklist and prepares his instruments for flight. The life support technicians hook him into the cockpit as he becomes "Dragon 1". Lt Col Trout finishes the walk around and joins "Dragon 1" by the side of his cockpit. When all is ready, Lt Col Trout shakes Eainello's hand and closes the canopy locking him inside the Dragon Lady. Lt Col Trout is by the book. He has to be. He is the director of operations for the U-2 training squadron. He selects every U-2 pilot and supervises their training. Quickly we all move into the chase vehicle continuing to observe all the activity.

As the air cart spins up heat emerges from the dragon's tail, the first sign of life. The heat distorts the grass infield behind her. She slowly begins to breathe and the sound of her turbine overtakes the noise of the air cart which brought her to life. Yet she remains awkward. She is still stationary. She leans on her pogo stick with her left wing on the ground and the crew support her on the right. There is still plenty of activity however. The crew chief conducts the last of his checks still plugged into the intercom. Other maintainers disconnect and remove the air and power from beneath her long wings. One maintainer is yelling for the special tool to close the power line cover but cannot be heard above her whine. Another member of the team senses the problem and quickly brings the tool. The cover is sealed. Two of the maintenance crew assume their positions on her left wing holding it tight against the pogo stick. We are with the SOF in the chase vehicle. He is concentrating on his checks. And communicates with "Dragon 1" through hand signals. As Lt Col Trout advances through his SOF check list he makes mental notes and says them out loud. "Stream still in". From the tower comes the approval for take-off. "Dragon 1" signals with a knock on his helmet. Lt Col Trout responds by blinking the headlights confirming that he also heard the clearance for take off.

Dragon 1 eases forward as awkward as ever. Heat now streaming in a solid column from her tail. The maintainers, now laying prone on her left wing, begin nudging outward on her wing to bring her into balance. We are rolling behind and to the right of the column of heat which is now ripping by the window of our flight-line truck to our left. Lt Col Trout says he thinks the right wing is too low. The pogo stick should have been placed on the the right. Within seconds we are on the runway and turn in formation behind the awkward beast as she brakes to a halt on the center line. Lt Col Trout crosses the dragons breath and pulls past the left wing and onto the runway in front of her. The maintenance crew begins removing the last safety pins and performing their last checks. As the right wing begins to drop again, since one of the crew had to come down off the left wing, this young airman grabs the right wing tip and begins to hold it off the ground. It was hard to believe what I was seeing -- the crew was about to launch the Dragon with their hands, could it be possible for all the billions of dollars and four decades of experience, flight line operations of the U-2R come down to such an unsophisticated technique?

Lt Col Trout now spins the truck away from the Dragon and accelerates quickly away as if we were beginning a take off roll of our own. He travels about one hundred yards and stops. It is here that I look out the back window and for the first time catch a glimpse of what I came here to see. Dragon 1 is ready. Her thin profile and long wings are ready to grab the air, now seemingly only seconds away. Lt Col Trout turns the truck and races back to her nose. Not ready yet. The young airman struggling to keep her right wing off the ground is loosing the battle. He is putting his whole body into it, using his legs as an artificial pogo stick. The two other airmen are now clutching the left wing, at the very tip trying to re-balance her but are now dangling off the end of a swinging wing. Lt Col Trout races to each wing tip and commands that they remove the pogo stick and they launch her by hand. I had my answer. As soon as the pogo stick comes free the young airmen on the right wing looses his battle with gravity and her majesty's right wing touches the runway. For the first time in my life and hours of studying the U-2R I understand that the bulges on the tips of her wings are for, they are skid pads. Lt Col Trout confirms that it is not optimal but very much OK for the Dragon's wings to touch the ground. Lt Col Trout then issues another command to try to put the pogo stick onto the right wing. Three airmen now jump up on the left wing and as she rocks slowly back to the left the forth airman has enough time to get the pogo stick into the right wing to keep it off the ground. The riders on the wing come down and all but one jump into the truck.

The final airman remains, still clutching the left wing. Lt Col Trout circles behind the heat breathing aircraft and resumes his station behind and to the right of the column of heat. It's time to go. Maj Eainello pushes the throttle and she's alive and breathing fire. The pogo stick drops immediately as the airmen releases her left wing. Within two seconds of the start of her takeoff roll she is full of life and responding to flight controls. She knows instinctively she was meant to fly. Withing 400 feet she is airborne, two more seconds and she is out of the view through the windshield. Her nose is pointed skyward and she is rocketing out of sight. The Dragon was meant to fly, not too fast, but high. Higher than most aircraft can even dream. As she sprung to life and grabbed the air she was no longer awkward. She had strength, balance, and coordination as she climbed into the sky. What seemed awkward on the ground was now a vision of majesty in the air. As quickly as I can roll down my window to stick my head out for a further look she begins to disappear into the clouds -- and it is over. Somewhere up in the clouds Maj Eainello begins his solitary climb to 12,000 feet. He is to circle and await the time to fly today's mission. I sense he is not alone. He is with this majestic Lady, his mistress, who he has been in love with for 13 years.

As we drive across the flight-line and back to base operations Lt Col Trout receives a call on his cell phone. The two T-38s are both down and green indicating they have safely arrived at their destination and are preparing to catch the Dragon when she flys to them.

About an hour later, as I stand on the sixth floor of an ivory colored office building gazing out the picture window over looking the Potomac River in Arlington, Maj Eainello and his Mistress emerge from an overcast sky above Ft McNair just across the river. Below him the prayers and ceremony for the heroic Dragon masters that came before him. To the right, the decision makers and analysts in the Pentagon who must decide on the future of this magnificent aircraft. And above him, the great ocean of high air which all but a few solitary heroes, with the help of the Dragon Lady, can explore.