How a spy plane became a NASA climate watcher

How a spy plane became a NASA climate watcher

This article originally appeared on Task and Purpose.

Located just north of Atlanta, Georgia, Dobbins Air Reserve Base is home to C-130 transport planes. But for the next few weeks, the base will host an unusual guest: a jet painted white that can fly for more than half a day at the edge of space.

NASA uses the ‘Earth Resources 2’ jet to study hurricanes, to test satellite systems, and for a range of other scientific purposes. Military aviation watchers may be more familiar with its cousin, the all-black U-2 Air Force spy plane that has collected intelligence photos for the US government since the 1950s.

It turns out that the so-called ‘Dragon Lady’ is good at more than gathering information about enemy forces: she’s also great at studying the forces of nature.

“NASA’s ER-2 has played an important role in Earth science research due to its ability to fly into the lower stratosphere at subsonic speeds, enabling direct stratospheric sampling as well as virtual satellite simulation missions,” NASA says of the jet. .

It makes sense that a spy plane works well as a science plane. After all, part of the reason the U-2 is still in Air Force service 67 years after its first flight is because of its adaptability. The aircraft is essentially a giant glider that can carry a large load of sensors, cameras and other instruments to gather information.

“It’s just a glider with a big motor stuffed up its ass,” said former U-2 pilot, Col. Michael “Lips” Phillips retired, on the Fighter Pilot Podcast in October 2020. “The reason it’s still used every day. All the crap we found on the world’s most sophisticated spy satellites can be put on U-2. And the bad guys don’t know when it’s coming.”

Unlike satellites, which travel in predictable orbits around the Earth, the U-2 can fly whenever necessary at very high altitudes. The U-2 often flies at 70,000 feet (13 miles) and above, while commercial airlines typically fly around 31,000 and 38,000 feet (6 to 7 miles), according to Am. Up that high, you can see the curve of the Earth, the movement of the night sky across the planet, and the tiny shapes of the airlines below you, one U-2 pilot, identified as Maj. Chris, in 2020.

Meanwhile, the ER-2 usually flies between 20,000 to 70,000 feet, NASA wrote. At that altitude, the ER-2 can test the sensors scientists want to use on satellites, meaning they can find and address any bugs in the system without the expense of a faulty satellite. launched into space.

The ER-2 has been deployed to six continents to study everything from global warming to ozone depletion, according to NASA. That work benefits not only the space agency, but also the US Forest Service, the Environmental Protection Agency, the US Fish and Wildlife Service, and the Army Corps of Engineers.

The agency used to operate straight-up U-2s starting in 1971 until it received its first ER-2 in 1981, and the second in 1989. Together the U-2s have flown more than 4,500 data missions. 2s and ER-2s and test flights to support scientific research,” NASA wrote.

The ER-2 flies at altitudes where the air pressure is so low that an unprotected pilot’s blood will boil. To prevent that, ER-2 pilots wear pressure suits that are nearly identical to those worn by NASA astronauts on the way to and from orbit, ER-2 pilot Donald “Stu” Broce told WIRED Magazine in 2017 .

Broce, who used to land F-14 fighter jets on aircraft carriers as a Navy pilot, said flying the ER-2 was a difficult task.

“Everything about the airplane is hard to do,” he told WIRED. “I call it the circus, everything about the plane is unique.”

[Related: The spy agency origins of NASA’s next powerful planet-hunting observatory.]

One of the odd things about the ER-2 is the pair of wheels that keep the plane’s huge wings off the runway. When the plane takes off, the wheels are designed to fall off and not be used again until the next flight.

Once the flight is airborne, the flight itself can last eight, 10 or even 13 hours, as Broce has experienced. To stay energized, pilots are given an edible substance such as baby food, which they eat through a tube that connects to their suit helmet.

The fit may be uncomfortable, but there are plenty of office scenes.

“The views are beautiful, there’s no weather, you see the curvature of the Earth,” Broce said.

The hardest part of flying the U-2 and the ER-2 comes at the end of the long flight, where the pilots have to stop the lumbering aircraft using the two wheels that are fixed in bicycle style on its belly, dicey. an offer even for a former carrier pilot.

“Every airplane in the world, at some point in the landing you can take off and relax and you’re done and all you have to do is roll out and use the brakes,” Broce told Flying Magazine in 2015. “The U- 2 wasn’t like that at all. You have to fly the plane until it stops on the runway. And it doesn’t handle crosswinds well and it’s on bike gear.”

To assist the landing, a U-2 or ER-2 co-pilot in a chase car chases the jet down the runway, stopping the landing pilot. For the next few weeks, aviators at Dobbins will enjoy that view as the ER-2 returns from bad weather tracking missions. The ER-2 will be based there until about March 5, the base said in a press release.

Whether it’s climate change, the ozone layer, the nuclear armed Soviet military or other things that could end all life on earth, the U-2 and the ER-2 seem to always be around to keep an eye on for USA. government. The aircraft will likely continue to do so for the foreseeable future.

“The handful of planes we have, we have about three dozen left, they fly every day,” Phillips, the retired U-2 pilot, said in 2020. “Somewhere in the world, some agency needs something of the government. , and the U-2 flies all the time.”

Special thanks to The Cuilbach newsletter where we first learned about this story.

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