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U-2 Showcases New Cockpit Built for the Future

Osan’s 5th Reconnaissance Squadron 'Blackcats' welcomed a new commander
and an improved U-2, boasting a cockpit built for the 21st Century.

By U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Andrea Knudson / 51st Fighter Wing Public Affairs

OSAN AIR BASE, Republic of Korea, June 23, 2006 – Osan’s 5th Reconnaissance Squadron “Blackcats” welcomed a new commander and an improved U-2, boasting a cockpit built for the 21st Century, on June 19.

The Block 20 aircraft arrived at Osan June 14 and was designed to provide greater pilot awareness and improve safety.

The Reconnaissance Avionics Modernization Program’s goal was to improve the maintainability and reliability of the aircraft.

The new squadron commander described the, “latest block upgrade for some time,” as a new, modern cockpit.

“The Block 20 aircraft is a new, modern cockpit with a computer on board that analyzes and displays a lot more information on three, 6-by-8 inch Multi-Function Displays and two smaller displays,” said U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Lars Hoffman, who assumed command of the squadron June 19.

"The Multi-Function Displays can be configured to display information the pilot desires in the layout they prefer."

U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Lars Hoffman

“The Multi-Function Displays can be configured to display information the pilot desires in the layout they prefer,” he explained. “Examples of information include altitude and navigation information, engine performance, moving map with mission course overlay, electronic checklists, diagnostic information on all aircraft systems and reconnaissance sensors, and multiple radio frequencies and settings.”

Trading in an old-fashioned typewriter for a shiny, new, cutting-edge computer may better illustrate the upgrade from the Block 10 to the Block 20.

“The Block 10 was a classic cockpit with round dials. Information was spread all around the cockpit and not easily readable by a pilot wearing a full pressure suit,” the commander said.

“It is extremely difficult to look around a cockpit while wearing the full pressure suit and helmet, so this "up-front" design of the Block 20 makes it easier for the pilot to read information while flying an aircraft that requires a pilot's full attention always,” Hoffman emphasized.

Due to the U-2’s high-altitude mission, pilots must wear the full pressure suit and helmet, which are similar to those astronauts wear in space.

The U-2, which has provided high-altitude reconnaissance for more than 50 years, has one of the highest mission completion rates in the U.S. Air Force despite the fact that the aircraft is the most difficult to fly due to its unusually challenging takeoff and landing characteristics.

“It’s a very complicated aircraft. Depending on configuration, you may have 10 to 30 people needed to launch the U-2,” said U.S. Air Force Maj. Ramsey Sharif, a U-2 pilot from Beale Air Force Base, Calif., who is temporarily assigned at Osan.

“A mobile pilot is in charge of getting the pilot airborne and back to the ground,” he noted. “They act as a safety observer and ensure a safe launch and recovery.”

The U-2 is the most difficult to land aircraft in the Air Force inventory. The landing gear configuration is unique; therefore, people may be familiar with the “chase car” concept.

Typically, a second U-2 pilot, the mobile pilot, is designated as the mission's backup pilot who waits in a high-performance chase car at the end of the runway as the aircraft makes it landing approach.

As the U-2 passes, the chase car follows it at high speed, with the “mobile” calling out the aircraft's altitude via radio to the pilot.

See Caption.
The 5th Reconnaissance Squadron recently upgraded their U-2 from the old U-2 Block 10 Cockpit (above) to a new U-2 Block 20 Cockpit (below). U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Andrea Knudson
See Caption.

“The pilot must maneuver the aircraft to two feet above the runway, and then stall the wings to touch down tail-wheel-first,” Hoffman said. “The pilot continues to keep the wings level as the aircraft slows to a stop and then allows one wingtip to touch the ground.”

“The U-2 has "pogos" that supports the 105-foot wide wingspan during taxi operations,” he explained. “These pogos fall as the wings rise on launch and the remaining main gear and small tailwheel are in a bicycle configuration. A ground support team installs the pogos for taxi back to the hangar after landing.”

This makes for a total team effort operation. The U-2 community is a close, tight-knit group with less than 850 pilots since 1955.

“Every pilot is here because they want to be, and each pilot is carefully screened prior to coming into the program,” Shariff said.

And just like the pilots, the maintainers, contractors and avionics specialists all take pride in the U-2 mission. Senior Airman Joshua Joyce is an avionics specialist with the 5th Reconnaissance Squadron.

Joyce said he feels he contributes to the overall Air Force mission because he is part of the U-2 community.

“We’re an operational squadron doing real-world missions,” he noted. “We’re providing critical intelligence information to senior leaders.”

The U-2 was specifically designed to carry reconnaissance payloads to extremely high altitudes.

The Block 20 U-2 can carry thousands of pounds of reconnaissance sensors to more than 70,000 feet, and remain aloft for more than 10 hours.

U.S. Air Force Maj. Jon Huggins heads up the recruitment process for pilots interested in the U-2 program and can be reached at DSN 312-368-4447 or by e-mail at
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May. 22, 2015
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