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Middle East Online June 23, 2005

US spy plane crashes in UAE

US pilot killed in US Air Force U-2 crash when trying to land at Dahfra air base near Abu Dhabi.

ABU DHABI - The pilot of a US Air Force U-2 spy plane was killed when he crashed the high-tech aircraft trying to land at an air base in the United Arab Emirates, US officials said Wednesday.

The US Air Force has named an interim investigation board to determine the cause of the crash, the first ever of a U-2 in the US Central Command's area of operations, air force officials said in Washington.

"There was no indication of hostile fire," said a US defense official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

The pilot, who was a member of the 380th Air Expeditionary Wing, was not identified pending notification of next of kin.

"The airmen of the 380th Air Expeditionary Wing mourn the loss of a true American hero in the service of his country," said Colonel Darryl Burke, the 380th's commander.

The plane crashed as it was approaching to land at the Dahfra air base near Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates, the US defense official said.

In a statement on the crash, the US military would not say where the crash occurred, citing "host nation sensitivities."

But UAE's state news agency WAM reported that the US plane crashed on landing at an air base in the emirates.

The news agency noted that "the United States has an agreement with the United Arab Emirates which allows it to use some of the military installations in the country."

"We have an ongoing investigation," Major Kelley Thibodeau, a spokeswoman for the US Air Force Central Command said. "There is a team of Air Force members that will determine the cause of the mishap. They will meet and conduct an investigation to determine the cause."

The US military said the plane was returning from a mission in support of Operation Enduring Freedom, which generally refers to US military operations in Afghanistan.

US forces have been fighting a resurgence of the Taliban along Afghanistan's border with Pakistan. The area also has been kept under close surveillance for signs of Al-Qaeda and its top leaders.

Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden and his number two, Ayman Zawahiri, are widely believed to be hiding in Pakistan's rugged tribal areas.

The U-2 is a Cold War legend that lives on as the air force's premier surveillance and reconnaissance aircraft.

The single seat, single engine plane flies at altitudes over 70,000 feet (21,336 meters), transmitting imagery or signals intelligence in near real-time.

The last time one crashed was January 26, 2003 near Osan Air Base in South Korea. Its pilot tried to glide the plane to the base after suffering catastrophic engine failure during a high altitude mission.

The pilot ejected safely seconds before the plane hit the ground, destroying a house and injuring three people.

There were 22 major mishaps involving U-2s between 1963-1996, a third of them in the 1990s, according to GlobalSecurity.Org, a Washington-based research group.

The air force considers the U-2 the world's most difficult plane to fly.

Its long narrow wings allow it to lift quickly to altitudes so high that pilots must wear full pressure suits similar to those worn by astronauts.

It has limited forward visibility because of its long nose and requires precise control inputs during landing.

"A second U-2 pilot normally chases each landing in a high performance vehicle, assisting the pilot by providing radio inputs for altitude and runway alignment," an air force fact sheet on the plane says.

U-2s have been in service since 1955, and the best-known incident involving one was when Francis Gary Powers was shot down on May 1, 1960 over the former Soviet Union.

The incident led to the collapse of a proposed summit conference between the United States, the Soviet Union, Great Britain, and France in Paris.

US president Dwight Eisenhower's initial claim that he had no knowledge of such flights was undone when the Soviets produced Powers, who had survived the crash.

He was sentenced to 10 years in prison, but released in 1962 in exchange for convicted Soviet spy Rudolph Abel.


Copyright 2005, Middle East Online