The Dragon Lady comes to earth

Courtesy of The Aviationist, here’s a great video of a Lockheed U-2 spy plane (often referred to as the “Dragon Lady”) landing at RAF Fairford in England a few days ago.  It shows the chase car following the aircraft down the runway at about 140 mph, its driver talking to the pilot on radio to tell him how far off the ground the plane’s wheels are (he can’t tell from the cockpit due to poor visibility).  Unusually, in this video there’s a truck following the car – something I haven’t seen before.  (The car driver, or in this case perhaps the truck crew too, attach light, flimsy wheels to the outer wings before the plane taxies back to its hangar.)

Apparently the chase car drivers (and presumably the chase pickup drivers too) have to undergo special training to handle their vehicles at very high speeds, while coping with the jet blast from the aircraft immediately ahead of them.  It must be one of the more enjoyable jobs in the Air Force, if you ask me – getting paid to drive a sports car at high speed.  You’ll find more details here (including videos) of the U-2 landing, and the chase cars in action.



  1. I suspect the jet exhaust is not a major problem, since the core of the problem is to get the thing to stop flying. But I Am Not A Jet Pilot.

  2. 140mph… send them overseas, they can train on the Autobahn.
    We call this commuting 😛
    (There are fewer planes but a lot more idiots on the highway so it should even out)

  3. I watched a guy put the outboard wheels on one afternoon at Beale AFB, he was standing in the back of an AF El Camino pick up.

  4. It must be one of the more enjoyable jobs in the Air Force, if you ask me – getting paid to drive a sports car at high speed.

    Knowing the Air Force, you have to be a rated pilot to have that job. (Yep, just checked – the chase driver is another U-2 pilot.) When I was in, 20-30% of the 20,000 lieutenants were rated (pilot or navigator). Something like 80% of the 3,000 Colonels were. So figure 15,000 Lts fighting for 600 O-6 spots. It makes sense that you spend millions to train someone, you want to keep them around, but don't complain about a "critical shortage" of maintainers, logisticians, and engineers.

    The AF has a rated mafia. Helicopters and drones could be flown by Warrant officers or even enlisted, but that would threaten the rated officer ranks. The AF fought UAVs for the longest time and eventually acquiesced when the other services threatened to move in. The AF dived in but put rated officers in charge.

  5. I knew an officer in the AF, after his first flying assignment he was offered tankers or drones.
    But you get to wear a flight suit when you fly a drone! And your mom said all those video games had no future at all….

  6. They can land really slow, enough a conventional pickup can reach and support them. After all, they are just a rather exotic powered glider.

    Saw them a couple times at Patrick Air Force Base back in the late 70's and early 80's. Be riding my bike on the bike path to the east of the concrete fence (about 3' high, this was before the base got fortified after 9-11) and I could just stop and watch them come floating down with two pickup trucks in chase and guys in the bed of the pickups reaching for the wings. A beautiful sight.

    Yes, they prefer a faster landing, and lots of room, but they can land and take off in a surprisingly little space. Once the wings get air, they leap off the ground.

  7. I spoke once with a former U-2 pilot. He said that the trickiest part was landing after a hydraulic failure. That meant a no-flaps landing, and without the flaps the approach speed window was about 2 knots. That was the difference between stalling and crashing, and going too fast to touch down on the available runway.

  8. My BIL moved over to the AF after flying helicopters in the Army. One of the things that rankled his AF instructors in flight school was that he wore his Army wings the whole course and had more flight hours, 2000+, than any but the most senior instructors on the base. Finished his career flying brass and politicians around out of Andrews AFB. He was not impressed by our "leaders."

    He laughs about standing on his seat as aircraft commander (6'4") and ordering the VP, Al Gore, to SIT DOWN as they were trying to land.

  9. Typical blue skycap nonsense 50 years after it stopped making sense.

    You'd have thought some mid-80 IQ field grade would have tripped to the idea that they could hardwire $20 worth of videocam and a cellphone screen monitor into the cockpit (a level of tech currently found on an entry level Nissan compact sedan) and give the pilot the ability to judge his own landings, without another rated jack@$$ zipping alongside.
    You could also sell the truck, and pocket the cash for a $15,000 net profit, before factoring in gas, tires, and accidents.

    But no one ever successfully accused the Air Farce of common sense.

    Give them back to the Army, and make them the Air Corps again.
    The uniform upgrade from whatever uniform abortions the Air Farce is wearing back to the Army's new old retro Pinks & Greens alone would be worth it, and the cost savings by letting WOs fly their helicopters would net a $50M annual savings in salaries alone.

  10. Rather quiet for a U2. Did they throw a newer type engine into them? IIRC, the aircraft was designed around the J-57, and that was a hellaciously loud unit. I lived under the final approach for NASA/AMES-Moffet Field in Sunnyvale 70's-8o's, and they flew one nearly every day. 2pm, and it would throttle up right over head, I think while dropping the flaps. Probably to prepare for a possible go-around, as that old engine was slow to spool up from idle.

    The first look at the U2 by the public might have been in Puerto Rico in the late 50's. Pilot radioed that he had a flameout and couldn't get a restart, and was hundreds of miles east of them. Tower was alarmed, but couldn't get an accurate position report to send help. Was told not to bother, jet would arrive in a few hours! Plane landed and was quickly hustled into a hanger to limit roving eyeballs.

  11. @Aesop: I doubt a $20 videocam will operate after spending 8-12 hours at 80,000 ft and -62°F. I'm surprised they don't have a LIDAR or radar altimeter, but maybe they don't have room for it, or more likely, room for the display. Aerospace is brutal; we tested electronics that would go from 100°F to -50°F over the course of a flight.

    @Will: They re-engined all flying U2's with GE's F118, designating them the U2-R and later U2-S. The F118 is the non-afterburner version of the F110, and is also used in the B2.

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