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Face of Defense: Women Pilots Add to U-2’s History

By Senior Airman Ross M. Tweten, USAF
Special to American Forces Press Service

SOUTHWEST ASIA, March 28, 2008 – In its 50 years of flight, only six women have flown the U-2 Dragon Lady.

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Air Force Capt. Heather Fox, a U-2 Dragon Lady pilot with 99th Expeditionary Reconnaissance Squadron, stands while Senior Airman Roric Ongaco (right) and Staff Sgt. Lisa Tetrick, 99th ERS physiological support division technicians, help attach the torso harness to her suit. Fox is one of only three woman U-2 pilots currently serving in the Air Force. Photo by Senior Airman Levi Riendeau, USAF

(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.

Three of those six are currently in the Air Force, and two of those three are currently fighting in operations Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom with the 380th Air Expeditionary Wing’s 99th Expeditionary Reconnaissance Squadron, the only U-2 squadron in U.S. Central Command’s area of responsibility.

Air Force Maj. Merryl Tengesdal and Capt. Heather Fox, both U-2 pilots with 99th Expeditionary Reconnaissance Squadron deployed from Beale Air Force Base, Calif., continue to add to history while fighting the global war on terror 70,000 feet in the air.

From these altitudes, Tengesdal and Fox along with their wingmen, provide other warfighters with intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance of the battle space. Since its introduction in 1957, the U-2 and the men and women who support it have provided the United States with an unmatched upper hand on the enemy by providing high-altitude intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance to commanders.

“After we’ve completed a mission and landed the aircraft, it’s rewarding to know that we’ve helped the forces on the ground and kept them safe,” Fox said. “Even after 50 years, the U-2 has a significant impact on the mission.”

Air Force Lt. Col. Thomas Engle, 99th Expeditionary Reconnaissance Squadron commander, described the U-2 as an unforgiving aircraft that requires exceptional airmanship to fly, and he said it arguably is the most difficult aircraft in the world to land. Pilots are carefully screened before being accepted for training, a process that includes a three-sortie interview profile to determine the applicant's aptitude for flying the “Deuce.”

Fewer than half of candidates invited to interview eventually qualify to fly combat reconnaissance missions in the aircraft. Missions of nine or more hours wearing a full pressure suit while flying at extreme altitudes are very fatiguing and require a high degree of professional commitment, Engle said.

“Major Tengesdal and Captain Fox are both experienced U-2 instructor pilots, bringing a high level of maturity and skill to the 99th ERS,” he said. “I place a high degree of trust in these officers, as they face tough decisions every day to keep our pilots and aircraft safe while executing the mission, and they do it admirably.”

Only about 850 airmen have flown the U-2 since its introduction. Fox said the small number of women whose names are on that list is just another number.

“To be perfectly honest, I really don’t think it’s that big of a deal,” she said. “The aircraft flies the same for women as it does for men. I’m just glad I’m a part of an aircraft with such a great mission.”

Tengesdal said every contribution in the military is important to winning the global war on terror.

“As a pilot, all that matters is the mission, no matter if you’re male or female,” she said. “We get it done out here, and I’m happy to be a contributing member of this team. It’s an honor to be a part of the U-2 heritage.”

(Air Force Senior Airman Ross M. Tweten serves in the 380th Air Expeditionary Wing Public Affairs Office.)

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Related Sites:
U.S. Central Command Air Forces
U-2 Fact Sheet

Click photo for screen-resolution imageAir Force Capt. Heather Fox, a U-2 Dragon Lady pilot with 99th Expeditionary Reconnaissance Squadron, receives 100 percent oxygen in preparation for a mission while Senior Airman Roric Ongaco, 99th ERS physiological support division technician, monitors her suit pressure at a base in Southwest Asia, March 25, 2008. Fox is one of only three woman U-2 pilots currently serving in the Air Force. Photo by Senior Airman Levi Riendeau, USAF   
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