Tuesday, November 17, 2009

U-2 Chase Cars

Whenever you hear of the word U-2, the first thing that will pop into your head is Bono singing one of his band's hits in your head. For others it will stir up sentiments of the Cold War and a big black spyplane.

But note the odd car in this picture. The vehicle there is not because of a photo op. This is one of the legendary U-2 chase cars that the United States Air Force (USAF) has to escort this bird when it lands. The need for chase cars is not to impress our allies and adversaries for the rad spectacle that comes from this. This is a necessity as this is one of the hardest aircraft to land. The aircraft has a landing gear bicycle configuration and its massive wings creates a ground effect that creates a cushion of air under the aircraft; which it prevents the aircraft from landing [1]. Because of this, the aircraft had to purposely stall, or lose lift in its wings, in order to land. There's also the problem of a lack of visibility in the cockpit. Because of this, the pilot needs an extra set of eyes to guide them by radio in landing the aircraft. Because of this, the extra set of eyes is another U-2 pilot sitting in a souped up car following behind the spyplane.

The U-2 program started when the United States needed a spyplane that can fly higher than the Soviet fighters and anti-air guns in the early 1950s. This was needed to overfly the Soviet Union and to provide aerial reconnaissance to the top brass in the Pentagon and the White House. The Lockheed Skunkworks division concocted this jet that had a large glider-like wingspan to allow it to gain lift in the thin air up at 70,000 feet. The U-2 succeeded in spying on the Soviets until they caught up with anti-air missile technology and brought a U-2 down with a barrage of SA-2 missiles.[2] So great was this barrage that it brought down a pursuing Soviet Mig-19 fighter jet. Another one would be shot down over Cuba during the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962. The U-2 spyplanes would also be used by Republic of China (ROC) to spy on the People's Republic of China (PRC). The ROC U-2s were painted in the colors of the ROC air force.[3] Many spyplanes were lost and continued to fly until the United States reestablished political relations with the PRC in 1974. The aircraft would endure many changes including a more powerful engine(U-2C), a longer nose, equipment pods on the wings and above it(U-2R/TR-1A), and now high tech equipment such as GPS (U-2S). With these modifications, the crew of the U-2 looked at the appearance and gave it the nickname, "the Dragon Lady."

While this was going on, there was a need to land this aircraft safely. The USAF needed a fast car to keep up with the U-2 upon landing. Their option was to purchase many souped up Chevrolet El Camino cars in order to speed up to the landing U-2 and to add the gear struts that attached to the extreme part of the wings of the U-2 to allow it to taxi around the airport.

After that, the USAF turned to Ford to deal with a fact car to catch up to the U-2. the next series of cars were the Ford Mustang SSP (Special Service Package) during the 1980s and early 1990s.[4] The USAF bought a whole batch of these cars after testing a Mustang SSP that was being used by the California Highway patrol at the U-2 home at Beale Air Force Base (AFB), California.

After this car, the USAF turned to Chevrolet to get the Chevrolet Camaro Z-28. However, the air force got the B4C package, which was the version sold solely to the law enforcement.[5] With a 305-horsepower, 5.7-liter engine similar to the one used in the Chevrolet Corvette, the Camaro had no problem to keep up with the U-2 and carry the wing struts to the aircraft[6].

When the production of the old Camaro ended in 2002; the USAF turned to the Pontiac G8, also known as the Holden VE Commodore. This is the current car used (sometimes alongside an older B4C Camaro) as the chase car wherever the U-2 aircraft lands. Despite Pontiac's demise, the USAF is still maintaining the G8s for the time being. [7]

However, there is a storm brewing on the horizon. An aircraft now exists that will one day remove the daring pilot and Hollywood style car chases at Beale AFB. This aircraft was even suggested by dear old "Rummy" to replace the U-2.[8]
Meet C-3PO with wings:

This is the RQ-4A Global Hawk. This unmanned aerial vehicle does the spying without risking the pilot's life. It is the epitome of efficiency and expendability. In short, this is a plane without the passion or soul that you get from the U-2. The U-2 has the heritage and essence of the will of humanity to ride it out to the limits of the Earth and is an adventure from takeoff to cruising through the Coffin Corner (edge where your high cruising speed is at the exact point of stalling) and landing with a show. Comparing the Dragon Lady with the Global Hawk is like comparing a Ferrari California with a Hyundai Sonata. The Hawk does the job rather brilliantly, but what's the use of glorifying and oversize remote control bird. Seriously, if these two pilots were lady killers at a night club, who do you think would get the girl; the guy who flight-simmed through a war, or the one who flew at the edge of space and landed in hot pursuit.

Fortunately, Congress still has yet to cast a bill to retire the U-2. And there's a big emphasis on the word yet. I leave you all with a video link to the U-2 chase cars in the first five minutes with James May.

[1][8] Wikipedia contributors, "Lockheed U-2," Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Lockheed_U-2&oldid=326447175 (accessed November 18, 2009).
[3] Maartenw, "Aviation Photo Gallery," MyAviation.net,http://www.myaviation.net/search/photo_search.php?id=00773979 (accessed November 18, 2009).
[4] Riley, Mike and Ricks, Charles, "About the USAF SSP cars," SSP Mustang Page,http://www.sspmustang.org/features/USAF_SSP.htm (accessed November 18, 2009).
[5] Wikipedia contributors, "B4C," Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=B4C&oldid=320596237 (accessed November 18, 2009).
[6] Ward, Michael A., "Chasing a Dragon Lady," Global Security,http://www.globalsecurity.org/military/library/news/2005/02/mil-050222-afpn01.htm (accessed November 18, 2009).
[7] Unknown author, "Let's get it started," The Official Website of the United States Air Force,http://www.af.mil/news/story.asp?id=123148803 (accessed November 18, 2009).


  1. I got an "executive ride" in this Mustang at RAF Alconbury: this was the pilot's first ride in the Mustang, as it had just been put in service that week. He had some "control problems" as we made the turn and accelerated to over 100 mph. I was too busy hanging on to see the exact speed.
    The plane was late coming in, and darkness was setting in as we waited on the taxiway. Finally we saw the lights of the the U-2S and as it it went over us, the pilot hit the gas and things got exciting. Chasing the jet plane down the runway as darkness settled in was an experience I will never forget: my position was managing a large ground station collecting data from the U-2 loacted in Germany so I was very familiar with the aircraft, but this part of the mission was still impressive.

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  3. I remember when I was stationed at Osan Air Base in 1976 they used an El Camino. I remember a pole being mounted in the bed which someone would hold on to as the car chased the plane as it landed, they would get underneath One Wing and clip the wheel on to it and a pilot would gently bring it down to that side then stop. They would go to the other side clip the other wheel on and tow it back to the hanger.

  4. Wow, this is amazing! I work in the insurance industry and can't help but wonder who insures these vehicles and what those monthly premiums must be like :).

    - J.O. from KW Insurance, the Waltham Car Insurance leader.