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Chasing a Dragon Lady

by Master Sgt. Michael A. Ward
380th Air Expeditionary Wing Public Affairs

2/22/2005 - SOUTHWEST ASIA (AFPN)  -- The great thing about a sports car is that it goes really fast. The bad thing about a sports car is that it goes really fast and someday you are bound to get a ticket, unless you are wide open on the flightline at a forward-deployed location here as a chase vehicle for the U-2 Dragon Lady.

The U-2 is a very unusual aircraft. It is tough to land, and it is tough to see out of, and the pilot is pretty much cocooned in an astronaut-like pressure suit. To assist the pilot during takeoffs and landings, the U-2 community uses Chevrolet Camaro Z-28s to run with the aircraft so the driver can help the pilot "see."

"Your main job as the mobile in the Z-28 is to let the (pilot) know how high he is off the ground," said Maj. Shane Johnson, deputy operations commander for the 99th Expeditionary Reconnaissance Squadron. "The U-2 is a pretty fragile aircraft, and if you land hard, you can break it."

The driver of the Z-28 is a fellow U-2 pilot, and the two work as a team. While the pilot is prepping for the flight, the Z-28 driver preflights the aircraft and gets the chase vehicle in position. Once the pilot starts the takeoff roll, the Z-28 follows at speeds that climb to nearly 100 mph.

"At first, it's a little unnerving because you're not used to going that fast and because you're not used to chasing an airplane down a runway," the major said. "You kind of have to get used to it. But after awhile you do, and it's just another day at work."

Takeoffs are the easy part, Major Johnson said. During landings, the drivers not only need speed, but the skill to slot in directly behind the fast moving jet without getting in the way.

"You don't want to hit the airplane, and you don't want to flip the car," he said. "As you make those fast run-ins you have to get your aim point. It's kind of like doing a rejoin in formation. You just come zooming in from behind and follow along about 60 feet from the aircraft. When you're good at it, you can just pull it right in behind the plane," Major Johnson said.

It takes a powerful car to chase down a jet aircraft, and the Z-28 has a 305-horsepower, 5.7-liter engine similar to the one used in the Chevrolet Corvette. The car will actually beat the jet from 0-to-60 mph, but past that, the jet always wins, he said.

Fast cars have been part of the U-2 program since the 1960s. The program began with Chevrolet El Caminos and later used Ford Mustangs before switching to the Z-28. But with the Z-28 now out of production, new Pontiac GTOs are on the flightline at the U-2's home base at Beale Air Force Base, Calif.

"Driving the (Z-28) is fun, but that's not why we're out there," the major said. "We're out there to be the safety observer and make sure the pilot can safely put the aircraft on the ground. When you come back from an eight-hour mission, and you've got to land the most difficult aircraft there is to land, you want somebody to back you up. With the car, you are the wingman backing up the pilot."

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