Toward the Unknown: 5th RS provides highest eye in the sky
OSAN AIR BASE, Republic of Korea -- Faced with an ever-present North Korean offensive threat, U.S. forces in the pacific region train daily to deter and defeat any hostile force.
While Osan's fighter jet fleet stands ready to crush enemy ground and air forces, it's what happens above them every day that gives the entire coalition force an edge.
"Our squadron provides about 80 percent of the intelligence imagery of North Korea," said Maj. Ricardo (last name withheld due to operational security constraints), 5th Reconnaissance Squadron director of operations and U-2 Dragon Lady pilot. "That's how important we are and how important the U-2 is for this mission. Every time a U-2 takes off here, it's on a no-kidding operational mission."
Originally used by the CIA to fly high-altitude intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance missions over the Soviet Union, the U-2 is used today for both tactical and strategic reconnaissance in multiple AORs to deliver imagery and signals intelligence to decision makers throughout all phases of conflict.
Equipped with sensors that capture high-resolution images - from the edge of space - that can be enlarged beyond the resolution of any other digital sensor, the U-2's capabilities make it one of a kind.
"With our payload and high-altitude capabilities, no other aircraft can go as high as we can to do what we do," Ricardo said.
However, the uniqueness brings certain challenges, Ricardo explained.
"A lot of the new guys have trouble getting used to it because it's so different than other airframes they've flown," he said. "Think about landing a bicycle with 105-foot wing span... You don't land the U-2, it lands itself - we pretty much just stall it at two feet. Any U-2 pilot will tell you it's never easy and you never get used to it."
Because missions take them to altitudes greater than 70,000 feet, pilots must be outfitted in fully-pressurized space suits. This makes landing the "bicycle with a 105-foot wingspan" an even more difficult task due to the lack of visibility and mobility inside the cockpit. Enter the mobile officer.
Mobile officers, or mobiles, are other U-2 pilots that act as the "eyes" of the pilot in a "chase car" that follows behind the aircraft while it taxis, takes off, and lands. The mobile acts as the wingman from the chase car, feeding the aircraft's altitude and other pertinent information directly to the pilot. The mobile also plays a central role in pre-flight preparations as well.
"Our crew-rest limitations are very strict, so when we show up the day of a mission it's pretty much game on," Ricardo said. "The mobile goes and preps the aircraft, so when I step to the jet in my space suit I just go in there, flip a couple switches and go. I don't have to check every switch, I'm entrusting him to make sure that he has everything where it needs to be, so all I need to think about is the take off and the mission."
Because of the difficulties of flying the aircraft, joining the ranks of Dragon Lady drivers can be an arduous task. Perspective U-2 pilots must have previous flying experience in other airframes, submit a formal training package, and receive an endorsement from the existing pool of U-2 pilots. Once selected for training, they must qualify in a T-38 trainer, fly the TU-2S two-seat trainer, and successfully complete mission-qualification training before being assigned to an operational reconnaissance squadron.
"What we do is really unique, so the U-2 family is pretty tight, kind of like fraternity," Ricardo said. "To put it in perspective, only about 940 U-2 pilots have ever flown the U-2 solo in the airframe's history of almost 60 years. That's a pretty small group."
While administrative control of the 5th RS falls under the 9th Reconnaissance Wing at Beale Air Force Base, Calif., operational control belongs in the hands of Pacific Air Forces, another notch in the squadron's "uniqueness belt."
"We're kind of like a mini group with Airmen from about 20 different (Air Force Specialty Codes) and our contractors that help support the aircraft," said Maj. Gary Charland, 5th RS maintenance operations officer.
It takes everyone in the squadron to successfully complete a mission, and when a pilot's life is at stake it's a no-fail mission - one the maintenance side of the squadron takes very seriously, Charland said.
"You have young Airmen out there turning wrenches, the (physiological support division) getting the suits ready, intel getting the missions ready, all to send the pilots to the edge of space, hold them up there, and bring them back safely," Charland said. "That gives me goose bumps to think about. I've been part of several (Mission Design Series) throughout my career, but the U-2 has definitely has been the highlight, not only because of its mission, but also because of the synergy between the operations and maintenance teams."
Before every mission, the team comes together to see the pilot off and then welcome him back upon his return.
"When we greet the pilot, strap him in and I watch the aircraft take off, that is instant gratification for all the hard work that the young Airmen out on the flight line have done, and watching that aircraft rocket up into the sky like a home-sick angel is the highlight of my day," Charland said. "Of course welcoming the pilot home is just as rewarding. The same fanfare when we launch the pilot is felt on the back end when we welcome them back to Earth, and then we get ready to do it again the next day."
Even though rumors of the U-2 being retired have recently surfaced, the Airmen of the 5th RS will always look "toward the unknown."
"You've heard the impact that we've had here on the peninsula, but now multiply that by the U-2s globally - it's an unparalleled ISR capability that provides our coalition allies with the information they need to persecute, execute wars and win," Charland said. "Until the point comes when they say we can't fly anymore, we're going to continue to fly and execute the mission without fail."