3 veteran pilots answer the following question:
Why is the U-2 spy plane considered to be the hardest plane to pilot?
Let’s begin with, why it was the most dangerous.
Pilot John Chesire has 4 decades of aviation experience…he explains the “Coffin Corner”.
Not too fast / Not too slow
“Because it flies high enough to be caught in the Coffin Corner. This is a very narrow area of the flight envelope where the airspeed is low enough to stall…”
“…but the pilot cannot go any faster because the pilot is limited by the critical Mach number.“
What is the “critical Mach number”?
It is the speed just a bit SLOWER than crossing the Speed of Sound.
“So, if not on an EXACT safe air-speed,
any slowing by only a few knots will cause stall buffet…”
“…and going slightly faster by a few knots, the pilot will encounter high speed buffet as the air over wings exceeds the speed of sound, and incurs a destabilizing shock wave.”
“It flies on the very edge of controllability.”
Basically, the U-2 can not handle a sonic boom while cruising at a high altitude.
Retired Captain, Reg Prewitt explains the harsh conditions of flying a U-2 mission.
“The pilot’s working environment is difficult and environmentally stressing. A flight requiring a pressure suit starts with a lengthy process of putting on the pressure suit. Highly trained experts basically dress them. They have already been following a strict diet for a day or longer that limits intestinal gas, ensures proper hydration, and minimizes the need to eliminate waste during flights that can exceed 12 hours.”
“The U-2 fuselage is essentially an F-104. The cockpit is rather tight in a flight suit but is crazy tight in a pressure suit.”
“Think the Michelin Man in a phone booth.”
Many mission critical switches are tucked away in hard to reach places that can’t be seen well if at all. A mirror helps but knowing where each switch is, how it is currently set, and how to change it is essential. A highly sensitive mission blown because the proper sensor wasn’t operating when and where it was supposed to be working is a career limiting event.
“The board with the route map and mission card is big for good reasons. It is tucked into the space above the pilot’s head when not in use. A friend who flew U-2s back in the mid ‘80’s said that just turning it over took something like 6–7 well orchestrated movements. Remember too that the airplane was flown for a long time with reference to the map and the ground through a periscope that looked straight down.”
“Track tolerances were extremely tight on missions. Doing it precisely by visual reference had to be a challenge. Inertial reference units and autopilots made a big difference in the pilot’s workload and precision.”
“The cockpit environment is also not pleasant. It’s extremely cold outside but the sun blasts the cockpit and heats up the suit. The pilot is tightly strapped in. Movement is very limited and sitting on an ejection seat is never fun for very long.”
Now for the final challenge: LANDing
Retired USAF pilot, Pete Steitz, explains the challenge.
“I knew some U-2 pilots and the other test was landing. There are very few U-2 pilots who have never gone off the runway or worse, crashed”
They had a slogan that goes like this……..”there are U-2 pilots who have not crashed……yet”.
“The U-2 has landing gear in the center of the fueslage. The wings have what I would call gear struts which fall off upon take-off.”
“They are not there on landing and the wing span is like a glider. A vehicle races along and tries to correct the pilot. If the landing was good, the wing gear struts would be inserted so the U-2 could taxi.”
“Reg Prewitt brought up a good answer. Pressure suits and diet. Same for SR-71 and astronauts.”
While at Kadena AB, Okinawa, I got the complete tour from watching the suiting up to takeoff of the SR-71’s based there out of Beale AFB, CA. The Japanese called it “habu” or black snake.
“The diet vanished when they were off duty…”
“…We downed many shots and ate burgers at the O’Club.”
Hope ya’ll enjoyed the read…until tomorrow, have a good one. -Rick
John Chesire on Quora HERE
Reg Prewitt on Quora HERE
Pete Steitz on Quora HERE
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