The last days of the U-2 spy plane are ending, and one of the small U-2 pilot fraternity offers this remembrance:
...It may seem odd to grieve for a machine. But the U-2 is no ordinary vehicle. Some in my world call flying the plane a religion, others a calling. For me it was a gift.
The U-2 is nicknamed the Dragon Lady for good reason. You never knew what to expect when you took it into the air, no matter how seasoned a pilot you were. This was an unfortunate consequence of its design. The trade-off of a plane built light enough to fly above 70,000 feet is that it is almost impossible to control. And 13 miles above the ground, the atmosphere is so thin that the “envelope” between stalling and “overspeed” — going so fast you lose control of the plane, resulting in an unrecoverable nose dive — is razor-thin, making minor disruptions, even turbulence, as deadly as a missile. The challenge is even greater near the ground, since to save weight, the plane doesn’t have normal landing gear.
...Were the risks worth it? Absolutely. The advantage of having a human being in the pilot’s seat of a reconnaissance plane is overwhelming. A person can troubleshoot problems in mid-flight, with creativity that a computer lacks and a proximity to the problem that a remote-control pilot can never achieve. A pilot also has unique situational awareness: I’ve been on more than one mission in which I was able to distinguish promising details that a drone would have missed.
It was worth it personally, too. I’ll never forget the adrenaline surge of landing what was basically a multimillion-dollar jet-powered glider on its 12-inch tail wheel from a full stall while wearing a space suit. And I’ll always remember the peace of sitting alone on the quiet edge of space, out of radio contact for hours.
The new generation of drones have their merits. But flying robots, no matter how advanced, can’t measure up to the courage and commitment of a pilot who is risking her life for the sake of the mission.
Reconnaissance will outlive the U-2, but there will always be a divot in the hearts of those who have seen the curvature of the earth, the stars seemingly close enough to touch, and known the satisfaction of having completed a mission with the Dragon Lady.
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