Flying the U-2

Russ Erb

Originally published May 1998

Our speaker was intrepid test pilot and RV-6 builder Dave Kerzie. Although Dave has flown many different aircraft in his career, as listed in last months newsletter, the focus of this discussion was the U-2.

Dave's first introduction to the U-2 was as a young pup flipping through 1958 issue of Model Airplane News, where a 3-view drawing of the U-2 was shown. While this may not sound that significant now, remember this was several years before Francis Gary Powers was shot down and the government finally admitted that the U-2 existed. Hmmm… The best part of this story was that Dave showed us the actual drawing in the actual issue of Model Airplane News that he had first seen it in. Score: 100%--outstanding attention getting step.

While Dave retired from Lockheed last June, he still enjoys talking about the U-2. He brought with him an audio-visual device straight out of the Antique/Classic division, namely a 16mm film projector. Several Project Police officers were overheard recounting their glory days in high school of operating the projector.

The history of the U-2 has been well documented in many books, especially Jay Miller's history of the Skunk Works. As such, we'll just mention a few high points here.

The U-2 started in December 1954 when Kelly Johnson submitted an unsolicited proposal to the government for a high flying spy plane. At this same time, Lee Erb was settling himself and his new bride in at Edwards AFB, starting a two-year career as an Air Force Flight Test Engineer. Lee knew nothing about the U-2 program and was not involved in any way, but I digress.

For Kelly Johnson, doing the impossible was normal ops. The first U-2 was flying 8 months later. Do that with your F-22. Something about having good people and blowing off bureaucracy and other straphangers. Kelly also understood and emphasized the importance of keeping everything light and simple. That still goes for you and your homebuilt.

The production line was fired up again in 1966 to build the U-2R, which was really a totally new airplane 40% larger than the previous U-2s.

If that wasn't enough, the production line was fired up yet again in 1979 to build another batch of airplanes. For various political reasons, this aircraft was named the TR-1. Several years later, the TR-1 was re-designated back to the U-2S.

Dave described the U-2 as having a fly-by-wire flight control system. That is, you fly it by pulling on wires (cables). It's a big airplane, so the control forces are fairly high. Ailerons are controlled by a large yoke for better mechanical advantage. Remember that you're doing this in a full pressure suit.

Dave then fired up the projector and showed us some historical footage. The first part of the film showed building the original U-2. Of note was the wet wing design. The film quickly moved into initial flight tests, including landing tests for normal landings, maximum sink rate landings, and crosswind landings. Did you know that early U-2s were air refuelable? It was probably more compatible with the KC-97s of the time than the B-47.

Seventeen years after the first flight of the U-2, the Air Force decided that maybe we didn't need to send new U-2 pilots up solo on their first flight in the airplane, and the first 2 seat training version of the U-2 was built.

Like many gliders, the flaps on the U-2 can be set to a negative deflection, known as the "gust relief" position. Some airliners, such as the Lockheed L-1011, also use this concept.

The U-2 is also probably the only Air Force aircraft to routinely fly off of carriers. The U-2 flies a normal arrested landing using a tail hook. No catapult is required for launch, although a clear deck is. With a reasonable wind over deck, the U-2 lifts off after a short deck run.

So what's happening today with the U-2? Recently testing was completed on replacing the engine with the GE F-118, which is similar to the engine used in the B-2. Other than that, like most airplanes the work is in developing and testing new systems.

Dave was asked what was his favorite part of flying the U-2. He listed two things. Above 70,000 feet altitude, you can see the curvature of the earth. The other was the spectacular view on night flights.


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Revised -- 13 March 1999