This article was originally published on Task and Purpose.
Located just north of Atlanta, Georgia, Dobbins Air Reserve Base is often home to C-130 transport planes. But for the next few weeks, the base will be home to an unusual guest: a white-painted jet that can fly for more than half a day at the edge of space.
NASA uses the ‘Earth Resources 2’ jet to study hurricanes, test satellite systems and a variety of other scientific purposes. Military aviation observers may be more familiar with its cousin, the all-black Air Force U-2 spy plane that has been collecting intelligence photos for the US government since the 1950s.
It turns out that the so-called ‘Dragon Lady’ is good for more than just gathering information on enemy forces: it’s also great for studying the forces of nature.
“NASA’s ER-2s have played an important role in Earth science research due to their ability to fly into the lower stratosphere at subsonic speeds, allowing direct stratospheric sampling as well as simulation missions. virtual satellites,” NASA says of the plane.
It makes sense that a spy plane would work well as a science plane. After all, part of the reason the U-2 is still in Air Force service 67 years after its first flight is because of its adaptability. The plane is basically a huge glider that can carry a large number of sensors, cameras, and other information-gathering tools.
“It’s just a glider with a big engine stuck up its ass,” said a former U-2 pilot, retired Col. Michael “Lips” Phillips, on the Fighter Pilot Podcast in October 2020. “The reason I still it’s used every day. All the crap we have about the world’s most sophisticated spy satellites can be put on a U-2. And the bad guys don’t know when it will come.”
Unlike satellites, which travel in predictable orbits around the Earth, the U-2 can fly whenever needed at high altitudes. The U-2 often flies at 70,000 feet (13 miles) and higher, while commercial jets typically fly between 31,000 and 38,000 feet (6 to 7 miles), according to Time. High above, you can see the curve of the Earth, the movement of the night sky across the planet, and the tiny shapes of planes below you, a U-2 pilot, identified only as Major Chris, said in 2020.
Meanwhile, the ER-2 typically flies between 20,000 and 70,000 feet, NASA wrote. At that altitude, the ER-2 can test the sensors scientists want to use on the satellites, meaning they can find and fix any bugs in the system without the cost of launching a faulty satellite into space.
The ER-2 has been deployed to six continents to study everything from global warming to ozone depletion, according to NASA. That work benefits not only the space agency, but also the US Forest Service, the Environmental Protection Agency, the US Fish and Wildlife Service, and the Army Corps of Engineers.
The agency used to operate direct U-2s from 1971 until it acquired its first ER-2 in 1981, followed by its second in 1989. Together, the U-2s and ER-2s “have flown more than 4,500 data missions and evidence in support of scientific investigation,” NASA wrote.
The ER-2 flies at altitudes where the air pressure is so low that an unprotected pilot’s blood would literally boil. To prevent that, ER-2 pilots wear pressurized suits that are nearly the same as those worn by NASA astronauts on the way to orbit and back, ER-2 pilot Donald “Stu” Broce told the WIRED magazine in 2017.
Broce, who used to land F-14 fighter jets on aircraft carriers as a Navy pilot, said flying the ER-2 is a difficult task.
“Everything to do with the plane is a bit hard to do,” he told WIRED. “I call it the circus, everything about the plane is unique.”
[Related: The spy agency origins of NASA’s next powerful planet-hunting observatory.]
One of the strange things about the ER-2 is the pair of wheels that keep the plane’s huge wings off the runway. When the plane takes off, the wheels are designed to fall off and not be used again until the next flight.
Once airborne, the flight itself can take eight, 10, or even 13 hours, as Broce has experienced. To stay energized, the pilots bring an edible substance similar to baby food, which they eat through a tube that connects to their suit’s helmet.
The suit may sound awkward, but there’s a great office look.
“The views are beautiful, there’s no weather, you see the curvature of the Earth,” Broce said.
The hardest part of flying the U-2 and ER-2 comes at the end of the long flight, where the pilots have to stop the heavy plane using only the two wheels arranged bicycle-style on its belly, a risky move. proposal even for a former aircraft carrier pilot.
“In every plane in the world, at some point in the landing you can just give up and relax and go and all you have to do is taxi and hit the brakes,” Broce told Flying Magazine in 2015. “The U-2 wasn’t like that. absolutely. You have to fly the plane until it stops on the runway. And he doesn’t handle crosswinds well and he’s on a bike team.”
To assist with the landing, a fellow U-2 or ER-2 pilot in a chase car chases the plane down the runway, guiding the landing pilot to a stop. Over the next few weeks, Dobbins airmen will be able to enjoy that view when the ER-2 returns from severe weather tracking missions. The ER-2 will be based there until about March 5, the base said in a news release.
Whether it’s climate change, the ozone layer, the nuke-armed Soviet military, or other things that could wipe out all life on earth, the U-2 and ER-2 always seem to be around to keep an eye on the US. U.S. government. The aircraft will likely continue to do so for the foreseeable future.
“The handful of planes that we have, we have about three dozen left, they fly every day,” Phillips, the retired U-2 pilot, said in 2020. “Somewhere in the world, some government agency needs something, and the U -2 flies all the time.”
Special thanks to the flyby newsletter where we first heard of this story.