Late Breaking News
Cabin Modifications Completed
In August, the Air Force announced that cabin altitude reduction effort (CARE) modifications were made to 32 U-2 airframes, reducing the altitude equivalent within the cockpit from 29,500 feet to 15,000 feet, while at altitude. A press release from Air Force’s Air Combat Command noted the previous altitude equivalent was roughly the height of Mt. Everest.
The CARE modification, which cost $8.7 million, reinforces the airframe structure, replaces valves, changes the bleed air system logic and alters cockpit controls.
“It's heartening to know, even in these financially constrained times, money is being utilized to ensure the safety of our pilots,” said Lt. Col. Colby Kuhns, 1st Reconnaissance Squadron commander. “Since the CARE modifications have occurred, there have been no reported DCS incidents.”
“To eliminate the risk of DCS for U-2 pilots is phenomenal,” Lt. Col. Brian Musselman, 9th Physiological Support Squadron commander, said in a press release. “It’s an operational solution for a human performance issue.”
To complete the project, Lockheed Martin maintenance crews worked 10-hour shifts for six days a week from September 2012 to June 2013, with each modification taking 33 days to complete. The work was done at two California locations, Beale Air Force Base, home base for the U-2 program, and at Program Depot Maintenance in Palmdale.
“Maintaining the health of our pilots is paramount,” Clifton said. “An unhealthy pilot force would have substantial negative effects on mission capability. The CARE modifications are a game-changer for the U-2 community.”
The recent research on brain effects from high-altitude flying will have benefits beyond the Air Force, according to McGuire, who said, “These results may be valuable in assessing risk for occupations that include high-altitude mountain climbing, deep sea diving and high-altitude flying.”
Sidebar: 'Dragon Lady' Still Flying After More Than 50 Years
DoD Budget Constraints Delayed Replacement
BEALE AIR FORCE BASE, CA — The Lockheed U-2 high altitude reconnaissance aircraft, which has been flown for more than 50 years, was first designed during the Eisenhower administration to penetrate the Iron Curtain and detect military installations in the Soviet Union during the Cold War.
A 2011 proposal called for the then-fleet of 33 spycraft to be replaced by 2015 with RQ-4 Global Hawks, high-tech drones that have been part of the Air Force since 2001. Last year, however, the Pentagon proposed delaying the retirement of the U-2, nicknamed the Dragon Lady, as part of DoD budget cutback; the drones cost more than $175 million each.
U-2s, based at the 9th Reconnaissance Wing at Beale Air Force Base, CA, are rotated to operational detachments worldwide.
“Today, U-2s are used as aerial eavesdropping devices; U-2s survey dirt patterns for signs of makeshift mines and IEDs over Iraq and Afghanistan, making these dynamic high-flyers as effective today as they were nearly 60 years ago,” according to the website of the aircraft’s manufacturer, Lockheed Martin.
The aircraft delivers “critical imagery and signals intelligence to decision-makers throughout all phases of conflict, including peacetime indications and warnings, low-intensity conflict and large-scale hostilities,” according to the Air Force.
Since 1994, $1.7 billion has been invested to modernize the U-2 airframe and sensors, the Air Force states on its website, with upgrades including the transition to the GE F118-101 engine which resulted in the re-designation of all Air Force U-2 aircraft to the U-2S.
- McGuire S, Sherman P, Profenna L, Grogan P, et. al. White matter hyperintensities on MRI in high-altitude U-2 pilots. Neurology, 2013; 81 (8): 729 DOI: 10.1212/WNL.0b013e3182a1ab12
- Hundemer GL, Jersey SL, Stuart RP, Butler WP, Pilmanis AA. Altitude decompression sickness incidence among U-2 pilots: 1994-2010. Aviat Space Environ Med. 2012 Oct;83(10):968-74. PubMed PMID: 23066619.