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U-2 exceeds 25,000th hour of flight

by 2nd Lt. Kidron B. Vestal
380th Air Expeditionary Wing Public Affairs

10/19/2009 - SOUTHWEST ASIA (AFNS) -- U-2 aircraft No. 068-0337 was accepted by Air Force officials in 1968, and exceeded the 25,000th hour of flight Oct. 18, 2009, in a mission out of Southwest Asia.

The plane, with a wingspan of 105 feet, is maintained by military members and civilian contractors of the 380th Air Expeditionary Wing, and is the second high-altitude intelligence, reconnaissance and surveillance plane to reach this milestone.

The first U-2, aircraft No. 068-0329, clocked a quarter of 100,000 hours April 4, 2009. These two are the first of 33 U-2 airframes worldwide to achieve this feat.

Superintendents help oversee the maintenance operations of crew chiefs, and assistant crew chiefs.

"Every day, they come to work knowing they are responsible for the most critical high-altitude intelligence asset in the world, and they are dedicated to ensuring every mission is delivered on time and ready for the fight," said Capt. Vaughan Whited, the 380th Expeditionary Aircraft Maintenance Squadron officer in charge.

This particiular aircraft has been through much in its 41 years, including landing belly up three times that required major overhauls each time.

"The technicians and contractors continue to synergize their best maintenance practices in order to ensure she keeps flying strong," Captain Whited said.

The plane's design is accommodating for the ISR mission, not necessarily for an ease in maintenance. This makes No. 0337's achievement even more remarkable.

Tech. Sgt. Dave Wright, a 380th Expeditionary Aircraft Maintenance Squadron expeditor, said the airframe is more labor-intensive than others, given its age and the changes in technology over time. When designed, some things were not considered.

"Most aircraft have access panels and a hydraulic system that is easily accessible. The U-2 does not," Sergeant Wright said. While this might appear as a blunder, there may be a good explanation.

"The U-2 is unique in that to maximize combat capability," said Col. Ricky Murphy, 380th Expeditionary Maintenance Group commander. "There's no redundancy in the primary systems on the aircraft ... as to minimize weight and maximize loiter time over the area of operations."

There are various platforms of ISR systems, with cameras that capture the broadest, most in-depth imagery of anything out there, Captain Whited said.

Because of their maintenance, the systems are, "consistently reliable every time," Colonel Murphy said.

In addition to digital and satellite documentation, 10,500 feet of Kodak film is used on the weapon system. Artistry for this airframe is not limited to such imagery; however.

Staff Sgts. Jason Ortiz and Michael McVey of the 380th Expeditionary Maintenance Squadron sketched with chalk symbolic designs on the airframe prior to the flight.

Consistency was a highlight of the day, echoed by Chief Master Sgts. William Renner and David McGuigan, of the 380th Expeditionary Maintenance Squadron and 380th Expeditionary Maintenance Group, respectively.

"Looking at it long-term shows you how you have consistent maintenance practices over time," said both gentlemen near-simultaneously. "Four decades of 'getting it right' led us to Oct. 18, 2009."

Success did not come by accident. Every factor for attention is considered, even for the operator.

Given the aerial elements that the pilot will face at 70,000 feet, Lt. Col. Robert Wehner, of the 380th Expeditionary Reconnaissance Squadron, received pure oxygen for one whole hour prior to flight. Thus, his pre-flight inspection was executed by another pilot, as is the practice for every U-2 mission.

"There is a huge amount of trust there for a pilot, between the maintainers and other pilots," Captain Whited said.

Even with the layered workload, he continued, "many have said the U-2 is the most demanding and rewarding aircraft anyone could fly."

"If that airplane feels as good as I do, I guess that's a good thing for both being 41 years old," Colonel Wehner said.

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