An Air Force U-2 — the same type of plane that found hidden Russian missiles in Cuba 60 years ago — helped rescue a lost pilot who had made an emergency landing near a remote California mountain lake last week.
A U-2 spy plane — among the oldest, oddest, and most accomplished planes in the Air Force’s inventory — was on a training mission over California on Tuesday, Feb. 8, when the pilot, Maj. Sean Heatherman, heard a cry for help over his radio from a civilian plane with engine trouble.
The stricken plane, Heatherman realized, was quickly losing altitude in the mountains outside Sacramento, and was probably too low for its distress calls to reach nearby airports. But for Heatherman in the U-2, which routinely flies higher than nearly any aircraft on earth, the transmissions were loud and clear.
“I was flying twice as high [as] most airliners, so I had a very good line of sight with my radios,” Heatherman said in an Air Force press release.
The plane, which Federal Aviation Administration records identified as a single-engine, two-seat Aeronca 11AC, landed in a field near Lake Berryessa, a reservoir in Napa County known for the “glory hole” spillway pipe at Monticello Dam.
Heatherman, according to an Air Force press release on the mission, contacted both his home station at Beale Air Force Base and air traffic controllers in Oakland to alert them to the radio call. None of the ground-based authorities had heard the plane’s calls for help, and they asked Heatherman to relay information from the plane until civilian help arrived.
First flown in 1955, the U-2 is one of the most specialized aircraft ever flown by the Air Force. It flies unarmed and, despite a jet engine, roughly as slow as World War II-era prop-driven planes. Its tiny fuselage is just large enough to carry camera and other recording equipment for spy missions. But its thin, 50-foot wings allow it to fly above 70,000 feet, far beyond the reach of the surface-to-air missiles of the 1950s and ’60s and even many of today’s fighter planes. The U-2 is said to have a glide ratio — a measure of how far, with the engine off, a plane’s wings allow it to travel before gravity pulls the plane down — of over 25-to-1, a ratio akin to that of gliders. Modern commercial jets, designed 50 years after the U-2, top out between 15-to-1 and 20-to-1.
As a result, if a U-2 were to lose power while at 70,000 feet, it could glide 300 miles to safety.
The U-2 made flights over Russia in the 1950s to observe Soviet nuclear programs until one was downed by a new generation of Russian anti-aircraft missile in 1960. In 1962, the U-2 took pictures of Russian ballistic missiles deployed in Cuba, both beginning and then, by photographing their removal, ending the Cuban missile crisis.
The U-2 remains operational today, orbiting battlefields and other spots the US might wish to keep an eye on.
It is also notoriously difficult to fly. Early versions of the U-2 had to be flown within a 5 mph window, a so-called coffin corner of engineering, where any slower would cause the plane to stall and tumble while any faster could break the plane apart.
Its massive wings also make it difficult to land. When one of the planes lands, a qualified U-2 pilot chases it down the runway in a car, relaying instructions and information to help the pilot ease the plane down onto its wheels.
Still, the U-2 can buck and twist wildly, as as a collection of videos from former U-2 pilot Ross Franquemont makes clear on Instagram.
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Calls by Coffee or Die Magazine to the listed owner of the California aircraft were not returned, but an Air Force release said the pilot was recovered by California Highway Patrol officers using the rescue information from the U-2 (CHP did not provide Coffee or Die with a report from the recovery in time for publication).
“Thankfully the aircraft landed safely in a field with no injuries, and Maj. Heatherman then proceeded on his mission,” said Maj. Matthew Dudderar. “It is not abnormal for pilots to offer assistance to distressed aircraft to different degrees based on the situation. There is a common bond among all pilots, whether military or civilian. We all will lend a hand if we can help in a difficult situation.”