The 9th Reconnaissance Wing has employed three civilians as instructors, to bolster the training of new pilots on the Dragon Lady.
But none of them are strangers to Beale AFB. All three were previously long-serving U-2 pilots, before retiring from the US Air Force. They have logged over 7,000 flying hours between them. They are returning to Beale as US government employees, working part-time.
Lt Col (retd) Jon Huggins clocked up 2,520 hours between 1989 and 2014. Major (retd) Cory Bartholomew amassed 3,055 hours between 1994 and 2014. They are shown together after their instructor checkrides, with Huggins on the left.
Col (retd) Dean Neeley (below) started in 1997 and continued his high-altitude flying career with NASA after leaving the Air Force in 2012, on the ER-2 at Palmdale. He has 1,600 U-2/ER-2 hours.
At Beale, the 1st Reconnaissance Squadron conducts the training program. Would-be U-2 pilots submit an application, and those selected are invited for interview. This is an eight-day process and starts with meetings with the wing leadership. Then comes various familiarizations and ground instruction. Candidates also meet current pilots to learn more about the mission, and take rides in the chase cars to observe takeoffs and landings. They are also introduced to the pressure suit.
Then instructor pilots take them for three flights in one of Beale’s four U-2ST two-cockpit trainers (above). The maximum altitude reached is only about 10,000 feet, but this is enough for the primary IP to demonstrate all the peculiarities of the Dragon Lady, including the all-important landing technique. Then the candidate will take the controls for pattern work followed by landings that are closely watched closely watched by the secondary IP who is driving the chase car.
After the flights, the two IPs confer on whether to hire the candidate. Not all of them succeed. The newly-hired pilots then spend six months in training, including the milestones of a first solo flight, and a first ‘high’ flight in the pressure suit.
It won’t be difficult to spot the three veteran instructors around Beale. They are wearing bright orange flight suits. This marks a piece of U-2 history, since all pilots wore them until the early 1990s, when Air Combat Command (ACC) was created.
If you want to learn more about training to fly the world’s most remarkable reconnaissance jet, and much else besides, you can watch a three-part video interview with Jon Huggins. It’s on the British website 10 Percent True, although I’m sure that you can trust most of what “Huggy” has to say!