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Reuters July 31, 2005

After 50 years U-2 spyplane still delivers the goods

By Martin Nesirky and Pascal Pinck


OSAN AIR BASE, South Korea, July 31 (Reuters) - As the matt-black U-2 spy plane approaches, a sports car surges on to the runway and gives chase.

Within seconds, the car is right behind the glider-winged, Pinocchio-nosed jet, which seems to fill the windshield as it edges toward the ground.

"Four ... 2 ... 2 ... 1 ... nice job," the driver intones over a handset, guiding the pilot down while steering the sleek blue car one-handed at up to 130 mph (210 kph). "Welcome back."

It all sounds -- and feels -- like a one-off stunt for a big-budget action movie. Yet this chase is repeated many times a day at a handful of bases dotted strategically around the globe.

It is a vital and unique part of a routine that has kept one of the world's most hard-to-fly planes airborne near the edge of space for half a century to gather secret information for U.S. intelligence and the military.

"We are looking at something somewhere and helping somebody do their job or their mission in a very direct way," said Lieutenant-Colonel Scott Johnson, commander of 5th Reconnaissance Squadron, known as the "BlackCats".

"It is hard to hide from us and that can be a very good thing, I think," Johnson, 42, from Louisville, Kentucky, told Reuters during a rare visit to the squadron's high-security compound inside Osan air base south of Seoul. "It keeps everybody honest."

Originally designed for the Central Intelligence Agency, it could not be called a reconnaissance plane given the high secrecy around it. The air force decided to call it a utility plane and since U-1 was already taken they named it U-2.

The U-2 first flew officially on Aug. 8, 1955, and was soon conducting top-secret Cold War missions over the Soviet Union to assess Moscow's missile advances.

On May 1, 1960, that cover was spectacularly blown.

The Soviet Union brought down a U-2 piloted by Gary Powers and put him on trial. Washington initially said it was a civilian weather reconnaissance flight off course but President Dwight Eisenhower later said it was a distasteful but vital necessity to avoid a Pearl Harbor-style surprise attack.

Powers was later freed in a spy swap in divided Berlin.

TOUCHING THE EDGE OF SPACE

No one denies the U-2's existence these days, although much of its work remains highly secret.

Pilots with the BlackCats were frank about the dangers of handling such a delicate and outmoded aircraft. They were eloquent about flying so high they can see the curvature of the earth, thunderstorms like popcorn far below and the darkness of space above. But they were careful not to discuss their missions.

"The specific area of coverage of the U-2 is actually classified," said Major Brian "Bubba" Dickinson, who is 35 years old and comes from Oscoda, Michigan.

He and Johnson pointed to past missions such as the first and second Gulf Wars. A U-2 pilot died in a crash in the United Arab Emirates in June after a mission over Afghanistan.

The U-2 has probably been deployed to monitor every conflict involving the United States in some way in the past 50 years.

"I think there's little doubt that the U-2 continues to operate against targets like Iran and like North Korea," said John Pike, director of Globalsecurity.org, a defence policy think-tank. "It gives a persistent surveillance capability that drones and spy satellites simply don't provide."

North Korea -- which says it has nuclear weapons and is building more -- regularly accuses the United States of flying U-2s to peer at strategic targets on its territory from near the fortified Demilitarised Zone that bisects the Korean peninsula.

Wherever the U-2 is headed when it takes off, the pre-flight routine is identical and rigorous.

"It starts hours before I even show up for work," said Major Robert "Crash" Creedon, 41 and from Newbury Park, California.

At Osan, civilian and military maintenance teams check the plane and its top-secret sensors inside one of the BlackCat hangars. Look carefully and you might also spot a real black mascot cat known as Oscar on the prowl.

Elsewhere, intelligence and operations officers brief the pilot, who then heads for medical checks with physiology specialists and crucial help putting on the $250,000 spacesuit that will keep him -- or her -- alive.

There are three women among about 80 U-2 pilots worldwide, including Major Merryl "Hubu" David, a 34-year-old former navy helicopter pilot from the Bronx. The spacesuit deadens the senses and reduces mobility but pilots adapt.

"I don't find it that bad," said David. "I guess it's like putting yourself in a suit and putting yourself in a telephone booth for a couple of hours."

Pilots breathe pure oxygen in their suits for an hour before take-off and then throughout the mission to reduce nitrogen in the blood and so cut the risk of the bends.

Looking like an astronaut or cosmonaut heading to a rocket, the pilot then walks slowly to the plane for pre-flight checks.

"STILL KICKING BUTT"

Take-off is another carefully choreographed team effort. The wings are so long and full of fuel they droop at the ends and both are supported by unicycle-like "pogo" wheels that fall away as the plane leaves the ground.

The chase car roars along in its wake and a truck is not far behind to collect the pogos as the U-2 climbs out of sight.

"About the first hour of the sortie it's fairly task-intensive with setting up all of the sensors, completing all the checklists," said Dickinson.

Precisely how high the U-2 flies is classified but it is more than twice as high as a commercial plane.

"You see so much of the world," he said. "There is something about being up there by yourself that is truly rewarding."

Pilots have time to read or study intermittently for several hours while the plane is on auto-pilot but they are in regular contact with the ground and can switch course.

The final hour of the flight is probably the most demanding for the fatigued pilot. The plane has to land on one rear wheel and effectively glide to a halt. The pilot needs the car to count down as the runway cannot be seen over the plane's long nose.

The military says the U-2 remains vital even though it is older than any of its pilots and is difficult to handle.

"We're still doing what we're doing, and this is after 50 years," said David. "Even with our antiquated systems, we're still kicking butt."


Copyright 2005, Reuters