Aug. 17, 2007 — -- At virtually any moment — day or night — you can look up and know that somewhere over Earth there's a U-2 pilot at the edge of outer space, watching and listening.
The U-2 is the most famous spy plane in history. Developed in secret for the CIA more than 50 years ago, the U-2 first detected the movement of Soviet nuclear weapons into Cuba, sparking the Cuban Missile Crisis. But the U-2 is not just a piece of Cold War history; it has been quietly brought into the space age and is now flying more than ever.
The military doesn't like to talk about the U-2 plane much. Its missions are secret, much of its technology classified.
More than a year and half ago, I asked the Air Force for an opportunity to see the U-2 in action and, if possible, to actually fly in one. This was not an easy request. Few civilians have ever flown in a U-2. And almost all of them have only one seat; only five in the world have two.
But this week, after some intense training, the Air Force agreed to allow me to become one of the few civilians in history to fly to the edge of Earth's atmosphere in a U-2.
The U-2 flies so high, so fast, the pilot wears a spacesuit, the same one worn by astronauts on the space shuttle.
Before flying, I went through two days of training and preparation at Beale Air Force Base in northern California, home base for the U-2 since the 1960s.
Out on the runway at Beale, you can see why the U-2 is considered the most difficult plane in the world to fly. Each pilot has a co-pilot, who chases the plane on the runway in a sports car. Most of the cars are either Pontiac GTOs or Chevrolet Cameros — the Air Force buys American.
The chase cars talk the pilot down as he lands on bicycle-style landing gear. In that spacesuit, the pilot in the plane simply cannot get a good view of the runway.
Upon takeoff, the wings on this plane, which extend 103 feet from tip to tip, literally flap. To stabilize the wings on the runway, two pogo sticks on wheels prop up the ends of the wings. As the plane flies away, the pogo sticks drop off.