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Chasing the U-2

by Tech. Sgt. Luke Johnson
9th Reconnaissance Wing Public Affairs

2/11/2010 - BEALE AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. (AFNS) -- "Gentlemen, start your engines."

This familiar call is one many NASCAR fans hear each weekend as they watch their favorite drivers compete for the checkered flag.

Yet, at Beale Air Force Base, a special chase car's pursuit down the flightline, tailing a U-2 reconnaissance aircraft at breakneck speeds, would leave any NASCAR fan screaming for more.

"The job is awesome," said Maj. Luke Lokowich with the 1st Reconnaissance Squadron. "You get to go 110 miles per hour every day, and (the U-2 is) the only aircraft in the Air Force that has (a person in) a car driving behind it talking a pilot through a landing."

Not all pilots can chase a U-2 down the runway at speeds of 110 mph.

"First of all, they have to be a U-2 pilot (because) they have to understand what the person in the aircraft is going through," Major Lokowich said. "When the U-2 pilot is up there in his pressure suit, everything is exponentially more difficult and the simple act of opening a checklist can be extremely difficult and time consuming."

The chase car driver provides the pilot with an extra set of eyes and ears on the ground as he or she talks the pilot down from a high-altitude sortie.

"In many ways, it's just a second crew member, a co-pilot in a single-seat aircraft, able to perform emergency checklists for him, work problems at ground speed zero where you have more time, more resources and more time to devote to any emergencies." Major Lokowich said.

The U-2 is regarded by many as one of the most difficult aircraft to land and maneuver. By having another U-2 pilot on the ground after a long, high-altitude mission, it's reassuring for the pilot in the cockpit to know that a fellow aviator has got his back.

"(You come) back from a long mission flying for nine or 10 hours, you are going to be tired (and) stagnant, and your visibility is really hindered in the suit," said Maj. Pete Van Pelt, a U-2 instructor pilot. "Your ability to feel, your dexterity and couple that with the fact this plane is really difficulty to land on a good day, it's really nice to have an extra set of eyes outside the airplane during the landing phase."

During normal missions, the chase car driver, or mobile driver, is responsible for more than just ensuring a safe landing at the end of a long operation. He preflights the aircraft while the mission pilot is getting suited up and he also monitors the weather and provides help in emergencies.

"The plane can be a handful if you have problems," Major Van Pelt said. "It's nice to have somebody else read the checklists to you, communicate things to folks on the ground for you."

Although U-2 pilots race down the runway in high-performance automobiles chasing the aircraft at speeds that would land hefty speeding tickets, they know their job ensures the success and safety of every U-2 sortie.

"It's a vitally important job to ensure the safety of the flyer and the aircraft, and that is first and foremost," Major Lokowich said. "(They) don't have to be up in the aircraft to be an important part of the mission. Just like the maintenance team, the backshop specialists and crew chiefs, (who) are all absolutely crucial to the success of a U-2 sortie, the mobile is just one more aspect of that."

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