Posted on: 15 January 1997
Last updated on: 16 January 1997
THE U-2 WORLD (January 1991 - July 1994, May - October 1996):
The first day I arrived, I was given a brief tour of the aircraft, and handed over to a Crew Chief for some training. He showed me the basics of the maintenance, inspections, and launch and recovery requirements. It's a quite simple aircraft to work on, and this instruction took about four hours. For the next month, I received some training as the day shift flight-line Expediter, then moved up as the Production Supervisor. After six months of that, I was promoted as the Production Superintendent. In that position, all the Production Supervisors, Expediters, and Schedulers worked for me. I was primarily concerned with the flying schedule, maintenance concepts, aircraft generations, deployments, taskings, air shows, and sensor management. My boss was the Maintenance Superintendent, and was always a Chief Master Sergeant (CMSgt).
Now, a brief tour of the aircraft: When you enter the hanger, the first thing that stands out is the massive wing span on the Dragon Lady. It's 100 feet plus long, and is almost the same size as the length of the SR-71 from front to back. Entering the cockpit, you see even older technology than the SR. With the exception of a few devices, it's you average old instruments and controls. There are plans currently underway to completely renovate the instrumentation into a more modern state of the art environment. The cockpit is equipped with an ejection seat, and a fan for added cooling during those hot summer days in California. The U-2RT's are the trainer aircraft, and have an additional cockpit raised up behind the FCP for the instructor pilot. Setup and instrumentationÌs are basically the same. All but about the last ten feet of wing are fuel tanks, which feed into four "saddle bag" shaped fuel sump tanks in the fuselage section. About ten feet from the fuselage on the wings are where detachable super pods are mounted. These pods contain sensor equipment when needed. Each wing contains one aileron, and two flaps. On the bottom of the wing tips are skid plates, which protect the wing and associated equipment from damage during landing. Holding the wings up is a detachable pogo, or outrigger gear, which will be discussed in a later section. The fuselage consists of a main landing gear with two tires, and a tail landing gear in the aft section consisting of two non-inflatable tires. The nose is changeable per mission requirements. The sensor bay (called Q-bay) is located just forward of the MLG wheel well, and holds a variety of different sensors. The electronics bay (called E-bay) is located just forward of Q-bay, and holds many electrical relays and components, as well as some defensive systems. Just aft of the wings are the speed brakes, primarily used for landing. The tail section consists of a rudder and two elevators. The entire horizontal stabilizer is moveable for aircraft pitch trimming. The aft section of the fuselage is removable to facilitate engine roll-backs and removals.
Now I'll briefly discuss some of the aircraft systems. The aircraft contains two LOX converters for aircrew breathing at altitude. Several pneumatic systems are also utilized to pressurize various systems and hydraulic accumulators. The electrical system is controlled by various components in E-bay, and fed by an engine driven generator and CSD. The hydraulic system is pressurized by an engine driven pump, and is used to assist various flight control movements, as well as the operation of the landing gear. The entire flight control system is the old "fly by wire" technology, which means all control is via cables from the cockpit. The air-conditioning system is designed to use engine bleed air, and is primarily used to cool the cockpit and mission bays, and provides pressurization for the cockpit. The aircraft navigates via an INS system, and has recently incorporated a Global Positioning System (GPS) for greater accuracy.
To launch the aircraft was quite simple. The aircraft was started by pneumatic air, either by the hanger system or by AGE equipment. There were only a few checks that were performed during the launch, and the complete process would take about ten minutes. Once the aircraft taxied, the last chance inspections were performed on the runway by the pogo crew (who will be discussed later). The recovery process only took about five minutes, and mainly consisted of pinning the landing gear, and lowering the flaps for later inspections. The aircraft were launched from within the shelter, and recovered out front. After recovery, the aircraft would be towed by the tail landing gear into the shelter. That's about all there is to that!
The fuel system is a bit archaic, and contains JP-8, a fuel that the majority of the AF now uses. If you can put gas in your car, your just about qualified to refuel the U-2. This aircraft is fueled by a process we call "over the wing", which is nothing more than holding a refueling nozzle (a bit heavier than those found at Chevron), and filling the tanks through openings in the inboard and outboard wings as well as the fuselage. There are different fuel loads designed for each mission profile. They range from an R-0 (which is the minimum fuel load) to the fully loaded R-12. The aircraft must be completely level to accomplish this operation, as without power, the fuel shut-off and transfer valves are completely open, and will allow fuel to go where it pleases. This was designed on purpose to allow pilots to shift fuel around in flight in the event of an electrical or engine malfunction. If they lost power, they could simply balance the aircraft out by simply raising the heavier wing, and allowing gravity to do it's thing. The aircraft fuel tanks are measured by inserting a dip stick through a specific opening in the wings. This is the only way to get an accurate quantity check, and once this is done, the cockpit gage is set accordingly. During flight, this gage merely counts down due to estimated fuel flows. All fuel flows from the wings into the fuselage sump tanks, and then is sent to the engine.
Now let me discuss pogos. These outrigger gears are removable, and were designed that way for weight conservation purposes. Pogos are about four feet long. They look like a car's leaf springs, and have two non-inflatable tires on one end, and a male probe on the other end. This probe fits into the pogo housing at about the mid section of each wing. They are held in place by a ground safetying pin. When the U-2 taxis onto the runway, a ground maintenance crew "pogo crew" removes these safety pins prior to the launch. When these pins are removed, the only thing holding them in place is the weight of the aircraft. Once the aircraft's wings develop lift on takeoff, the pogos fall to the ground. This pogo crew is a rotating full time job whenever the U-2 is flying. They recover the pogos from the runway after takeoff, perform maintenance on them, and wait for the next launch or recovery. Upon recovery, the U-2 lands, and the Pilots perform a balancing act on the bicycle landing gear. They usually do a great job, and when the aircraft slows to allow the wings to loose lift, the heaviest wing drops to the runway. That's the primary reason there are skid plates installed on both wing tips. Once the aircraft comes to a complete stop, the pogo crew enters the runway. They then install a pogo on the high wing, then pull it down and install the pogo on the other wing. And that's it, the aircraft taxis in, and the process continues all day. On rare occasions, a pogo can become lodged in the receptacle, preventing it from falling out. When this happens, the Pilots have three choices. Usually, they fly back over the runway above 500 feet, and by waging the wings up and down, it will usually fall out. If that didn't work, they would perform a "touch and go" landing, and that would usually do it. If that didn't work, the pilot would come back in and land, and maintenance personnel would remove the pogo. Then a hand launch would sometimes be performed. This consisted of a mechanic physically holding the wing, and running with it as the Pilot took off. Not much speed required on this aircraft to accomplish lift. Some times on recovery, a pogo can't be installed for various reasons. When that happened, a couple of mechanics would jump onto the wing which did have the pogo installed, and ride the aircraft in to prevent the other wing from hitting the ground. This looked really stupid, but at times was necessary.
Weight was always a factor on the U-2. With the wings being full of fuel, this created a lot of stress on the aircraft, and certain weight restrictions had to be adhered to. This caused many problems, especially where sensors were concerned. Every time something new came out, it was usually bigger and heavier. Lightening the aircraft was a primary concern of the Lockheed Engineers when they designed her. That's why there are pogos that fall off, and not actual landing gears on the wings. Several other things were also accomplished to assist in the weight problems. Many structural components, like ribs and bulkheads had large holes drilled in them at various places to lighten them. This put the structural integrity of the aircraft at the absolute limits. With all the new sensor systems, the aircraft was fast reaching it's maximum payload capacity. In fact, I can recall many situations overseas, where the aircraft had so much mission equipment loaded, we were unable to completely fill the fuel tanks to capacity due to the maximum weight restrictions. This problem was solved when the Pratt and Whitney engines were dumped for the lighter and more economical General Electric engines. Now, a fully loaded aircraft is again possible.
The inspection criteria for the U-2 was very much similar to that of the SR-71. The only real differences were that the U-2 didn't require 25 hour HPOs nor complete lubrications. All inspections were also performed relatively quickly compared to the SR, and an Extended Thru-flight (ET) inspection was also developed to accommodate "quick turns". In other words, the U-2 was very easy to work on, and a single aircraft was able to be flown three or four times daily. The U-2 flight-line personnel also went to the dedicated Crew Chief system, which was assigning all personnel to their own aircraft. This worked out extremely well. The only rotations the APG folks served on were the pogo crew and for weekend duties. By the way, a normal weekend duty in the U-2 world usually occupies two to eight hours. Of course there were exceptions, but not often.
There are also a few maintenance problems that continue to occur. Sump tank leaks is a biggie. The sump tanks are located in the forward fuselage, and manage all the fuel fed from the wings. Leaks continually spring up, and unlike the SR, this is bad. To change a sump tank, the engine must be removed. To remove the engine, the aircraft must be raised onto a fuselage cart, and the aft section removed. Usually aircraft with this problem are down for at least three days. Tail landing gear tires are another headache. These are not inflatable, and are basically glued to the wheels. It's not that uncommon to see these separate upon landing. The trainer aircraft are bad for this, as they perform many landings during the course of a sortie. Flap problems contribute to many of the in-flight emergencies. When this occurs, it's usually because they are stuck in the full up position. Lockheed Martin is vigorously involved in solving all these problems, but for now, we live with it. The U-2 was recently modified with a new engine. This modification changed the aircraft designation to the U-2S. As with any major aircraft change, problems will occur. Most are minor here, but are many, and are keeping Lockheed Martin and General Electric quite busy.
One of the things I first noticed when I entered the U-2 program was the big morale problem that existed. The U-2 and SR folks had always been rivals, and tension between the two was quite evident. When the SR folks came over, they were mostly higher in rank, and took their appropriate positions. This caused a lot of resentment, as some very experienced U-2 personnel lost their status. There was also a noticeable lack of pride. Most of the SR folks didn't want to be there in the first place, and quite frankly, the U-2 folks never really had much pride (at least compared to that we had achieved on the SR side). In time, this all came around, and with the exception of some of the older U-2 guys, it got much better. There were also many young trainees there, which was something I was not used to, and created some experience concerns.
Despite all the tension, we SR folks started to fit in, and brought many new ideas with us. My specialty was designing aircraft generation procedures, and scripting the maintenance flow processes. This is the process of proving our deployment capability in an exercise environment. During the first U-2 aircraft generation performed under the so called "new SR-71 supervision", we bettered the existing time record by over two hours. The old record was a few years old, and was performed on less aircraft than we had to deal with. Sometimes new is better.
In March of 1991, I deployed as the Night Shift Supervisor in support of Operation Desert Storm / Shield. While only there a few months, this is where I learned the true capabilities of the U-2 and it"s systems. At BAFB, we didn't see much of this stuff, and I gained a much greater appreciation for itÌs capabilities. There's not much here I'm free to talk about, but I will say that the U-2 played an incredible role in theater operations, and greatly aided in the success of the combined forces. I hope that some day, the achievements of this platform will be made public for all to praise. I'll have some unclassified personal stories in a later section.
In July of 1993, I deployed as the Maintenance Superintendent to RAF Alconbury Air Base in the United Kingdom. Our task was to setup a new 9RW operating location, as the 95th Reconnaissance Squadron (95RS) already in place was being deactivated. They were basically turning in the equipment we would not require, as we slowly too control of the operation. Our operations included support for the Bosnian efforts, as well as a few other commitments. I encountered a lot of hard feelings here, as they viewed the 9RW as the bad guys who had come to take over. Some resentment was understandable, as many would take a loss of the homes and property they had recently purchased. We all put it many long days of hard work for the first two months. Around the middle of September, most 9RW personnel were in place, and operations began to run smoothly. We finally received some needed time off, and were able to partake in the many wonders that England and Scotland had to offer. All and all, this was a fantastic trip, and much was accomplished. It's really too bad this Air Base would later shut down, as these facilities were awesome, and state of the art.
All through my tenure with the U-2, there was always one main problem that existed at BAFB, and is still present today. There are just too many Pilots in the program, which causes way too much flying. Each year, a certain amount of Pilots are expected to leave the AF for civilian airline jobs. In the early 90s, this migration greatly dropped, and the 9RW continued to retain more and more. Of course, this created many more sorties for training, and to keep aircrews current. This increased the sortie rate by at least 20%, and no extra maintenance personnel were added. Since the aircraft is quite easy to work on, this wasn't a big problem. What was effected was the flying hours accumulated on each airframe. Periodically, based on flying hours, the U-2 must under go a two week long phased inspection. The hours quickly added up, and created a bottle neck of aircraft waiting for this inspection. This caused the phase personnel to work long hard hours, and quite frankly, contributed to some quality and safety concerns. Because of this problem, phase dock personnel were beefed up to accommodate this surge. The big impact has been felt overseas. We used to perform all phase inspections at BAFB, freeing up deployed personnel to concentrate on flying operations. By the accumulation of flying hours at BAFB, we were becoming unable to provide high hour aircraft to deployed locations. Thus, these phase inspections are now performed overseas by sending additional personnel to those locations. Problem solved, right? Sort of. The Pilots maintain that their extra manning is required due to their rotating overseas commitment, and allows them to spend more time at home with their families. That's definitely a true statement, as the average tour of duty overseas is 60 days. But there's another side nobody likes to talk about. The maintenance guy's overseas tour of duty is 90 days. And with phases being performed deployed, that's more maintenance guys away from home. Usually, each maintenance guy now serves about one tour every year and a half. Basically, with recent AF cut-backs, the maintenance folks are the real losers, and the Pilots just keep on flying. There is no real need to maintain the current number of Pilots at BAFB. Keep in mind, all the highest bosses in the AF are or were Pilots.
Let's talk a bit about the Defense cut backs. The whole idea is to save money, and to do more with less. That's a fact of life in the Armed Forces now-a-days, and has quickly become the norm. What has this done to the AF? I can only speak to what it has done at BAFB. Incentives were provided to allow certain ranks to take an early retirement, which in essence would save money, and scale down the force. That's exactly was has occurred. Unfortunately, the guys who took advantage of this program were the most experienced. So right now, you see a lot of Senior NCOs and a ton of new airman. But the mid ranged SSgts and TSgts have become an endangered species. Such is life on the BAFB flight-line. Those remaining with experience are far and few between, and are completely overwhelmed with the workload. Over time, this will all even out and get much better. But for now, it's a fact of life, and in many ways compromises the quality and safety inside the 9RW. It should be mentioned that this was not the Air Force's idea, and was probably formulated by a number cruncher in DC.
The whole atmosphere in the 9RW has changed dramatically over the past few years. The recent increase of U-2 mishaps and crashes have dictated this change. Now, everybody's a bit gun-shy to make simple maintenance decisions, and also over react to many situations. I guess it's better to be safe than sorry, but at times it gets quite hysterical. I guess it's a good thing I retired because I don't think I could have put up with the new management styles in place much longer. What was really scary to me was the implementation of the new Quality Assurance Program (QAP) throughout the Air Force. What that did was create more paperwork, and less oversight. In the old program, QA was manned with many highly experienced mechanics and technicians, and was the primary oversight agency for all maintenance. With the new program, emphasis is placed on processes and not individual accountability. This, in a time where there are so many new young trainees in the U-2 program. This places the burden of maintaining quality primarily to the squadron level, and somewhat removes the QA office from the process. If the squadron is to maintain quality, they must rely on the efforts of their experienced personnel. And remember, these are the guys who are now few in number, and are overloaded with work. The new program has significantly cut back the number of the actual QA inspectors available. They have their hands full, and are able to inspect about 5% of all maintenance performed. I don't think it's hard to figure out what may be happening to the quality of maintenance performed on the U-2. I have to wonder if it's the same elsewhere in the Air Force? I am in no way blaming the recent crashes on this new program, and only one of them could remotely be attributed to maintenance. ThatÌs another story, and I don't think itÌs prudent to go there.
SR-71 Deactivation The U-2 World War Stories SR-71 vs U-2 Conclusion My Biography
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