In the U.S. Air Force, learning to fly the high-altitude U-2C reconnaissance airplane was a rare experience. No two-place trainer existed for the U-2 student in the 1960s. With its spectacular 80-foot wingspan, removable outrigger “pogo” wheels under the wings, tandem main landing gear, wing skids at the wingtips, and a powerful Pratt & Whitney J75 jet engine in a relatively slim fuselage, the U-2 was a handful. And every flight was solo.
As a young Air Force captain at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in Arizona in January 1967, I had made the first five qualification flights at low altitude, learning how to take off and land. Because control at low speed was marginal and landing required a full stall, all landings were assisted by another U-2 pilot driving a Chevrolet El Camino with a souped-up engine. The driver raced down the runway behind the landing airplane, radioing height information: “One foot…six inches…hold it off…. Good touchdown!”
On my sixth U-2 flight I had taken the airplane above 60,000 feet, wearing my skin-tight MA-1 partial-pressure suit, which was designed to keep me alive in case of a depressurization. Before descent and landing, the training called for an engine shutdown at high altitude, so the pilot would be familiar with depressurization, suit inflation, and sluggish flight controls. After restarting the engine at lower altitude, I returned home and landed uneventfully.
Six days later, on a February day in 1967, I climbed into the U-2 for my seventh training flight, a mission of four-plus hours involving celestial navigation and photo reconnaissance that would for the first time take me away from the area around Davis-Monthan. The cockpit was so cramped I felt like I was putting the airplane on rather than getting into it. When everything was hooked up, I started the engine and taxied toward the active runway.
“Spicy 42, cleared for takeoff when ready. Winds 090, six knots.”
I began the takeoff procedure: Roll onto the active runway and hold. Show the ejection seat pins to the driver of the chase vehicle (another U-2 pilot) to signify that I had armed the ejection system. Pump and hold the brakes. Throttle to 80 percent. Check all instruments. Tracker camera on. Release the brakes and push the throttle smoothly to the gate.
On takeoff, the acceleration was so powerful it was like being launched by a gigantic rubber band. The steep climbout and departure went fine. After reaching 60,000 feet, I got busy with the mission’s activities.
About two hours later, I was cruising serenely, straight and level over the western states. I had just taken a final celestial shot of the sun. I had amassed a grand total of 15 hours in the U-2, and despite the constant attention the airplane required, I was finally able to gaze at the snowy white, unbroken deck of clouds below.
BANG! The airplane produced a violent, high-frequency vibration, with an immediate sensation of deceleration. On the cabin altimeter, the needle that indicated the atmospheric pressure in the cockpit spun rapidly toward the same altitude as the airplane. Simultaneously with the engine flameout, the capstans of my partial-pressure suit inflated, squeezing my torso in their grip and forcing me into a stiff, hunchback posture.
My first conscious thought was to maintain control of the aircraft. Keeping the wings level, I eased the nose down to avoid a stall and settled into the best glide speed. I pulled out a mission planning chart and saw that the nearest suitable emergency airport was Kingsley Field at Klamath Falls, Oregon, 122 miles to the west.
As I eased the airplane into a left turn, I changed the battery switch position to conserve electrical energy so I could keep the helmet faceplate defroster working, power the essential flight instruments, and ensure that I would have enough juice to lower the landing flaps.
“Seattle Center, Spicy 42, MAYDAY. I have a flameout. Heading for Kingsley. Will not transmit again to conserve electrical. Request vectors to keep Kingsley at my 12 o’clock, over.”
“Ahh, roger, Spicy 42, Seattle Center. Kingsley Field current weather scattered clouds at 1,200 feet, 3,500-foot overcast, 15 miles visibility, winds variable, 260 degrees at 10 to 12 in snow showers, altimeter 29.94.”
The situation presented three scenarios. The most attractive was that I would continue gliding toward Kingsley Field until reaching a lower altitude, where I would try to restart the engine. If I got a relight, I would return to home base.
Scenario two: Despite the clouds, I would eventually catch sight of the airfield early enough to make an emergency flameout landing. The marginal weather and the fact that I would be landing the U-2 for the first time with no chase vehicle to call out my height above the runway—customary for all U-2 pilots, not just beginners like me—made this scenario less attractive.
The least attractive possibility was simply to eject and hope I could survive the winter conditions. Fearing there might be high terrain around the airfield, I decided I would eject only if I hadn’t caught sight of the field by the time the altimeter read 5,100 feet, or 1,000 feet above Kingsley Field.
As I descended toward the solid white undercast, the frigid temperatures penetrated the cockpit, numbing my hands through the pressure gloves, and formed a light frost on the metal surfaces and the inside of the canopy. Confident that Kingsley was within gliding range, I extended the landing gear to slightly increase the rate of descent. As I encountered the higher pressure of the lower altitude, the pressure suit automatically relaxed, making movement easier.
Passing through 18,000 feet, I entered the dim light of the overcast and had an unsettling sensation of time acceleration. I was descending into a wintry, hostile environment, and shortly, I’d be either landing or ejecting. The frost on the inside of the canopy now seriously impaired my ability to see out, so I used a plastic protractor-like navigation aid called a Weems Plotter as a scraper. I scratched at the frost and searched below the airplane, but saw nothing except solid clouds. It was like descending into a gigantic glass of milk. Finding the field would be a miracle.
Seattle Center (breaking up): “Spicy…2…. five miles east of Kingsley…. still.… your 12 o’clock…”
I replied that I would attempt a flameout landing at Kingsley and asked for more position advisories, but I received no further transmissions.
Conditions improved slightly between cloud decks at 12,000 feet. I removed and stowed the helmet faceplate, always a joyful moment in a U-2 flight. Because the faceplate might not reseal properly, opening it above 10,000 feet was prohibited. After six or seven hours of not being able to scratch your nose or rub your eyes, the pleasure of doing so was indescribable.
Then, a miracle. For a fleeting moment, as I passed through 11,000 feet, scraping frost and peering down, I saw, at the dark bottom of a narrow break in the clouds, a line of five blue lights. It could mean only one thing: taxiway lights at Kingsley Field.
I immediately extended the landing flaps, slowed to the proper flameout-pattern speed, and turned to the Kingsley runway heading. I held that heading for just a moment, then started a slow left turn.
The idea of a flameout pattern is to lose half the altitude over the field during the first 180 degrees of turn, and lose the remaining altitude while completing the second 180 degrees and arriving at the runway heading again. During the descending turn in the clouds, I caught glimpses of the airfield complex, but not the runway. Then, after 270 degrees of turn, I broke out into the clear. I looked ahead and to the left, where I hoped to see the runway, but saw only trees and farms.
Then I looked farther back to the left. There it was. The approach end of the runway was fairly close, but I had overshot badly to the right.
I banked steeply left while diving slightly to maintain airspeed and avoid a stall. There was a crosswind from the left as I rolled out toward Runway 32. I crossed the threshold at five or 10 feet, but with excess airspeed. Then, more good luck. The large main landing gear made almost-imperceptible contact with the runway, providing the height-above-the-runway information that I usually received from a chase vehicle. I was able to make a normal full-stall landing. The airplane rolled to a stop on the centerline with its left wingtip skid touching the runway.
With the adrenaline still flowing, I gave hearty thanks to my instructors and their excellent training. By making a dead-stick landing, I had just qualified for the 349th Strategic Reconnaissance Squadron’s exclusive Silent Birdman club.