An Afternoon Chasing U2s


A few years ago, members of our car club got an invitation to come to Beale AFB and learn about their U2 program. One of our club members is a retired Air Force officer, and knew (I think) the squadron commander.

What a memorable day that was.

The U2 – actually called a TR-1 now – about 40% bigger, is considered one of the toughest planes in the Air Force inventory to fly. It’s certainly not the fastest but difficult to land.

Pilots are carefully selected, and only after a distinguished career flying other planes, such as the F15.

We first sat in for a seminar to learn the history – a quick tour of the suit up facilities – where they are fitted with – I’d call it a space suit – (the same area where the SR-71 “Black Bird” pilots were fitted) – then off to the runway.

Because the U2 (everyone still calls it the U2) – has only 2 main gears on the fuselage – it is basically a jet-powered glider – they use a chase car driven by another  pilot to call out the distance of a landing plane of its  rear wheels to the ground.

For this day they really rolled out the red carpet for us – there was an actual chase car but they used a second following behind the first, just to show us how the procedure works.

The cars have changed over the years, they used Chevy El Caminos years ago, Ford Mustangs, Camaros, the later Pontiac GTOs – and I believe they have just ordered some new replacement.

While the cars don’t have many miles on them they get a good work out – from 0-120 thousands of times before they are retired.

So how does this system work?

The chase car stays off the runway, on the tarmac, until the U2 crosses the numbers. Then the fun begins – full acceleration doing a long sweeping left turn until we are going 100-120 about 150-200 feet behind the plane.

The driver is on the radio calling out the final altitude of the rear wheel – 10 feet – 5 – 4 – 3 – 2 -1 to help the pilot.

With a bit of flying that impressed me, the pilot slows down and keeps the wings level until the plane has stopped.

Then an Air Force crew in a truck comes out, puts temporary wheels on about midway up the wing – and the pilot then can taxi normally to the hanger.

Incidentally the wing tips have titanium “runners” to protect them should the tip hit the ground .

We sat in the pilot’s “inner sanctum” – their bar – and I got to talk to one or 2. I mentioned to one, “You guys have to be pretty good to fly one of these”, to which he replied “If you have to tell people how good you are – you aren’t very good”.

A sentiment with which  Lex would no doubt concur.

I asked a few technical questions that he could answer (not classified) – the rate of climb? – 10,000 fpm. Once the  plane leaves the runway it seems to leap into the air.

Obviously crosswinds are a factor to consider – and he said that if they are over 15 kts, they find another runway.

It was a memorable day.

I’ll see how  WordPress lets me insert multiple pictures, and you too can have a vicarious tour.

…an early suit








It looks like WordPress gives me the choice of inserting  pictures or a video…but not both. If you’d like me to post a short video of chasing the U2 let me know…

06-21-18 Video is here.



Filed under Air Force

15 responses to “An Afternoon Chasing U2s

  1. Buck

    We sat in the pilot’s “inner sanctum” – their bar – and I got to talk to one or 2.

    There just couldn’t be a finer place to “socialize.” I’m envious.

    • Bill Brandt

      Buck – what struck me was that most of these pilots were family men – one had to leave early to attend his child’s soccer game – none of them were the stereotype single guy in his 20s ready to kick the tires and light the fires – I thought – when posting this – I should leave faces out – but in the “inner sanctum” is a rudder of a U2 – with about 100 signatures of pilots who have gone through , an early model ejection seat, it was really a cool place to hang out and I felt honored to be there.

  2. cg23sailor

    If you have to ask if we want to see the video, you don’t know us very well do you?

  3. Grumpy

    A very interesting bird, with an equally interesting history and by-product.

    Thank you.

  4. Bill Brandt

    Hi Guys – it appears WordPress will only accept the link to a video – like YouTube – not allow me to upload the actual video file (like a photo) – so if any of you know a site where I can upload it I’ll do it as soon as I get back from a few errands. To me YouTube is too nutty (read the comments of most of these yahoos)

    It was a fascinating day – we went up another time to see the UAV Global Hawk which I’ll post too.

    The story of the U2 is fascinating too – a book I’d recommend by Ben Rich (who succeeded Kelly Johnson) is Skunk Works – apparently the CIA didn’t even consider Lockheed as a bidder when Kelly Johnson got wind of it – took essentially an F104 fuselage and put hue wings on it.

    A passage that I always re3member is during their flights over the USSR from ’56-’60, the U2 pilots could see the MiG contrails 30,000 feet below them trying to shoot them.

    It was apparently a lucky shot that got Powers.

    • I have the Skunk Works book, one of my favorites. The story of the original stealth aircraft pictured on the cover is amazing. The concept came from a Soviet technical paper everyone ignored except for a Skunk Works tech who read the paper and basically said if this paper is correct we can build this and it is a whole new ball game.
      Lockheed built a model based on the paper, put it on the radar test range and the radar operator turned on the radar. No sign of the model on the radar. Radar operator says the model fell off the test stand. A quick look outside and the model is still on the test stand. A bird lands on top of the model and the radar operator says OK, now I have a return.
      And we have no clue what is out there now.

    • Bill Brandt

      Busbob – several portions of that book stuck with me – the development of the F117 (which turned out to be really neither fish nor fowl – which is why it is mothballed today) – the development of the U2 and the metallurgy problems of the SR-71 – problems I believe would be challenging today – and they did it with slide rules.

      That, and how Kelly Johnson ran the Skunk Works – really – only about 40 engineers – silently hand picked (“ie, Mr Johnson would like to talk with you) – moving to a really nondescript building at the Burbank airport.

      He showed what a hand picked small group of dedicated people can achieve over a huge bureaucracy.

      Been reading about this F35 – and what a debacle it is turning out to be – each plane now over $300 million – and despite the best efforts of having a model for Air Force, Marines and Navy – not really the best for any of them – short range for all (in particular the Navy has to bring the carriers closer because of the 600 mile range) – one wonders what Kelly Johnson and his 40 engineers could have done.

  5. virgil xenophon

    The U-2 had just departed by a few years from Laughlin AFB@ Del Rio when I arrived for UPT in summer of ’66. Showed us the Hangers they were housed in–no historical plaques, tho, lol. Late-nite DJ “Wolfman Jack” was gone by then as well–a MAJOR dissapointment. I used to listen to him from that monster antenna across the border in Cuidad Acuna late nite way up in E. Central Illinois when I was in HS. AHHWHOOOOooooooo!

  6. virgil xenophon

    PS: People used to ask: “Just how isolated WAS it down in Del Rio in those days?” My ans was; “Well, when the AF looked around to find the most out-of-the-way place in America to base the U-2 to keep it away from prying eyes, they picked Del Rio, so what do YOU think!” LOL.

  7. Bill Brandt

    Guys – I still will post that video – have had work to do tonight but haven’t forgotten. YouTube is frustrating to this old programmer – it doesn’t like my proposed password – won’t even let me use it despite warnings that all of my limbs might fall off – But I will get it up “somewhere” in the next day/2 – now – it is only about 30 seconds long – (all my old Canon Powershot would allow) but you will see how they round that corner (must be hard on the right tires!) – they floor it and do a sweeping turn – the pic at the top – don’t know if you can see the speedometer – but we are doing 100

    I have a PowerPoint file of the U2 development at Muroc? Area 51 more likely – about 1955 judging by the cars – – I will try and extract those pics and put them up in the next few days.

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