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'Dragon Lady' celebrates 50th anniverary

by Lanorris Askew
78th Air Base Wing Public Affairs

8/8/2005 - ROBINS AIR FORCE BASE, Ga. (AFPN) -- As people stood by eagerly awaiting its arrival, the U-2 "Dragon Lady," queen of the aerial surveillance and reconnaissance kingdom, glided onto the runway here Aug. 2 proclaiming the beginning of a celebration.

Based at Beale Air Force Base, Calif., the U-2 was here as a static display in celebration of the aircraft’s 50th anniversary.

The Warner Robins Air Logistics Center's 330th Command and Control, Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance Sustainment Group is the system support manager for the U-2. The directorate manages the supply function and maintains all the parts for the aircraft. The directorate is also responsible for managing all contracts and maintenance for sustainment and acquisition of new requirements for the aircraft.

The eighth production of the U-2 is on display at the Museum of Aviation here is. In 1956 it was delivered to the CIA where it was known simply as "Article 349." This aircraft was the last of the original U-2s still in service and was given to the museum by NASA in 1989.

Maj. Shane Johnson, who flew the once top secret aircraft to Robins from Palmdale, Calif., said he is happy to be a part of the celebration as well as a part of the U-2 program.

The major, who has flown the Dragon Lady for three and a half years, said although he has been with the program for only a short time, it is a privilege to be a part of a program that has been around for so long and has such a rich history of contributing to the nation's defense.

"I'm very fortunate to fly the airplane and be a part of the program even later on in its years," he said. "I'm glad to have followed the tradition of all of the men and women who've gone before me in the U-2."

"The U-2 is a high-altitude tactical strategic reconnaissance aircraft,” said Maj. Denis Steele, who flew the aircraft back to California. “It can launch from long distances and go over other countries and collect information on locations that we are looking at."

The U-2 made its first flight in August 1955 and has played a vital role in every major world conflict since then, providing key decision makers with critical intelligence data.

The high-flying reconnaissance jet was designed early in the Cold War to fly over and photograph military activities in the Soviet Union and other communist countries. It has been used by the Air Force, the CIA and NASA. For Air Force pilots, it is a plum assignment.

"This is one of those career fields where if you get hired you feel pretty fortunate,” Major Johnson said. “It's a cool program, a cool airplane and a neat mission that we do."

Cool, but not widely known. He said few people know what they do, or can do, because a lot of it is still classified.

"It's pretty neat to see the impact the U-2 has had with politics and national security in the last 50 years. It started with the Cold War and now it's in (Operation) Iraqi Freedom doing its job there," he said.

That job, which is accomplished at heights once unheard of, is not the average trip in an Air Force jet.

Pilots wear a pressure suit, which is similar to what the shuttle astronauts wear during liftoff, Major Johnson said.

"We fly at altitudes above 70,000 feet and the cockpit altitude is about 30,000 feet so the suit maintains enough air around your body to keep your blood from boiling and keep you conscious," he said.

The suits have saved a lot of lives, and although Major Johnson said he has not had any close calls of his own, the suit is still a good safety blanket. (Courtesy of Air Force Materiel Command News Service)

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