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Los Angeles Times June 23, 2005

U.S Spy Plane Pilot Dies in Asia Crash

By Daryl Strickland

The pilot of a U.S. spy plane died in a crash while returning the aircraft to its base in the United Arab Emirates, the U.S. military announced today.

The plane, a U-2 model designed during the Cold War and still the stalwart of the nation's airborne intelligence, went down late Tuesday in an undisclosed location in southwest Asia, U.S. Central Command said.

The aircraft was returning from an assignment for Operation Enduring Freedom, the military name for the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan, when the plane crashed. The cause remains under investigation, the military said.

The military was unwilling to disclose the crash site, it said, "to ensure the safety of local citizens and the integrity of the site for the investigation."

The pilot, whose name has been withheld until the military can notify family members, was described as "a true American hero in the service of his country," according to Col. Darryl Burke, 380th Expeditionary Wing commander.

Since early 2002, the pilot had been based at the Dhafra air base, near Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates, the Associated Press reported.

The U-2s provide frequent intelligence reports for the U.S. military on Afghanistan. But the U.S. Air Force has reported at least 22 major mishaps from 1963 through 1996, according to a report by www.globalsecurity.org.

The latest versions of the spy planes, built in the 1980s in Burbank and updated in recent years, have been fitted with the world's most advanced sensors, radar that can take images in which an apple can be distinguished from an orange.

The U-2 is a single-seat plane with wide wings like a glider that can climb past 70,000 feet altitude, making it the world's highest-flying aircraft.

But the ability to soar so high makes it hard to handle in the air — and on the ground. Pilots wear a full pressure suit, similar to those that astronauts use to help keep nitrogen from building up in their tissues. That can cause a condition known as the bends, which can lead to paralysis or death.

While difficult to take off, the aircraft remains even harder to land. Once close to the runway, the engines must be stalled for a landing to occur. The U.S. Air Force has described the aircraft as the hardest in their arsenal to touch down.

The plane made its maiden flight in the mid-1950s, when the U.S. military used its advances to track the Russian military, its technology and weaponry.

In 1960, U.S. pilot Gary Powers was brought down while taking pictures of ballistic missile test sites in the Soviet Union. While flying at 67,000, he avoided a series of surface to air missiles, but the shockwaves caused the aircraft to disintegrate. Powers safely ejected from the plane, according to the website.

The U.S. military said the aircraft was conducting weather research, but the ruse was spoiled when Soviet Premier Nikita Kruschev said Powers had been detained. He was held on espionage charges for nearly two years.

Times staff writer Peter Pae contributed to this report.


Copyright 2005, Los Angeles Times