AL DHAFRA AIR BASE, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES – It may not sound possible to “catch” an American spy plane while driving a Dodge Charger. But that’s precisely what we did on a sweltering August afternoon at Al Dhafra Air Base in the United Arab Emirates.
In a U.S. Air Force safety maneuver that hardly felt like one, our car raced onto the military runway just as a U-2 spy plane approached for a landing.
The plane itself was designed in the 1950s to grip the lightest parts of the atmosphere some 70,000 feet above the Earth, so, in the words of one of the U-2 pilots, “it really doesn’t want to stop flying.”
Enter the Dodge Charger, which along with another “chase car” helped guide the spy plane down to the runway, speeding at about 90 miles per hour — an operation perfected over the many years of the famed U-2 Dragon Lady’s operations.
The Air Force allowed Reuters to accompany it on a ride.
The U-2 pilots have limited visibility due to the design of plane and their full-body, astronaut-like pressurized suits.
A chase car driver provides critical information in the final moments of flight to the cockpit, like the U-2’s distance from the runway. That helps the pilot stall the engine at just the right moment.
The process is called “catching” a U-2, the Air Force said.
It was just one small part of an often invisible, daily choreography of Air Force operations around the world that guide everything from the air war against Islamic State to intelligence collection on North Korea’s missile programs.
Al Dhafra, a sprawling UAE-hosted military base outside Abu Dhabi, is home to everything from American spy planes like the U-2 to advanced F-22 fighter jets and “tanker” aircraft that refuel U.S. warplanes in midair. It is a critical hub for the U.S. Air Force in the Middle East.
The pilot from the U-2 that landed on this runway in the Emirates was appropriately cautious about discussing his mission.
Asked where he flew, he quipped: “You can go pretty far in nine hours.”
The U-2 was secretly developed during the Cold War to help the United States peer behind the Iron Curtain at Soviet military capabilities and made its first flight in August, 1955.
The U-2’s ability to gather enormous amounts of intelligence from its stratospheric perch above the Earth is a matter of record. U-2 photographs of a Soviet nuclear missile buildup in Cuba set off the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962.
The U-2 flights themselves also carry risk. The intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance building at al Dhafra is named in tribute to Major Duane “Muff” Dively, a U-2 pilot who died when his jet experienced a mechanical failure on its approach to the desert base in 2005.
The U-2 models are more sophisticated than ones used in 1960, when a spy plane piloted by Gary Powers was shot down over the Soviet Union. But they still box in the pilot and require brute strength to operate flight controls.
“It’s like a wrestling match in there,” said another U-2 pilot.
The Air Force website acknowledges that all those factors give the U-2 “a widely accepted title as the most difficult aircraft in the world to fly.”