Currently flying the U-2 high altitude reconnaissance aircraft and the RQ-4 Global Hawk drone , this elite US Air Force unit has flown 47 different airframes from 52 worldwide locations, including four stints at sea.
I was a newly commissioned Ensign and a junior officer of the deck (JOOD) on board USS AMERICA (CVA 66) in November 1969 when a modified U-2 landed and took off from our carrier deck off the Virginia Capes. While the event proved that it was possible, U-2’s were flown from aircraft carriers only a few more times! When this highly-classified experiment took place, the future Chief of Naval Operations, CAPT Thomas B. Hayward, USN, was AMERICA’s skipper.
In a DOD Bloggers Roundtable on March 12, 2013, Air Force Captain “JC” briefed reporters and bloggers on the history of the 1st Reconnaissance Squadron.
Despite our capability of reconnaissance satellites, the U-2’s uniqueness provides an unpredictable asset by being able to fly missions anywhere at any time.
“We fly really critical missions,” Captain “JC” said. “There’s stuff we do that no one else can do.”
To be considered for the U-2 program, pilots must have a minimum of 500 hours in fixed wing aircraft. Although all U-2 pilots are Air Force types, a number of them have been former Naval Aviators in the Marine Corps, Navy and Coast Guard. Once accepted for the program, they exercised lateral intra-service transfers to the Air Force. The U-2 community is a small one, but currently includes two female aviators.
In addition to being a U-2 pilot, Captain “JC” is a U-2 instructor and also part of selecting future U-2 pilots who undergo a two-week interview process.
The U-2 was conceived in 1953 and became operational 18 months later in 1955. These original “A” models were modified F104 fighter jets. To obtain the high altitudes required for their missions, the planes were heavily modified by tremendously expanding their wingspans. Height was a critical factor, as with every 100 lbs. of weight removed; the U-2 gained 1,000 ft. in altitude. Part of the initial modifications included deleting the landing gear.
The original “A” models were built in 1955. The second models, two of which are still operational, were built 13 years later in 1968. The remainders, with wingspans of 104 ft., were built in 1980.
In addition to military operations, U-2’s were flown to assess the damage done by Hurricane Hugo in New Orleans, the earthquake in Haiti and the tsunami in Japan.
The U-2 is a single seat aircraft. U-2 pilots fly in pressurized suits at “the edge of space”, with a cabin altitude equivalent of 29,000 ft. A typical mission provides the pilot with a view ahead of 300 miles. Sensors including a “big” digital camera, an Optimal Bar Camera that utilizes two miles of “wet” film, as well as infrared and radar cameras.
It’s no wonder that the 1st Reconnaissance Squadron has to mottos:
“Alone, Unarmed and Unafraid”
“In God We Trust”.
To commemorate the centennial, the squadron held an open house March 7 – 9 with displays, demonstrations and two days of historical symposiums capped by a special dinner at Beale Air Force Base near Sacramento, where previous members of the squadron and reconnaissance veterans were special guests.