Alone, Unarmed and Unafraid


Clarence “Kelly” Johnson, famed Lockheed Skunk Works® founder, said he would have a U-2 in the air in just eight months. Incredibly, Johnson almost met his own impossible deadline, delivering the first U-2 for a test flight on July 29, 1955, nine months after signing the contract.

Today, we celebrate the 60th anniversary of the first U-2 test flight by speaking with U-2 pilots.

U-2 pilots fly many types of missions, from intelligence collection to surveying dirt patterns for signs of makeshift mines and IEDs to wildfire support and other natural disaster assistance. One advantage to the U-2 over unmanned aircraft is having a pilot in the loop, able to react quickly to threats, mid-flight mission changes or timely search and rescue coordination.

Unlike other pilots, U-2 pilots fly solo, without armament, for 10-12 hours. What gives them confidence is the U-2’s highly capable defensive suite and the knowledge that the aircraft is incredibly reliable.

Why U-2 Pilots Fly

Similar to the Dragon Keepers behind The High Flying Heart of the U-2 Dragon Lady, U-2 pilots feel a tremendous dedication and responsibility to ensuring combat leaders’ decisions are well-informed and keeping troops on the ground as safe as possible.

“Supporting the troops is why pilots want to get airborne every day,” said Greg Nelson, retired U.S. Air Force U-2 pilot and current Lockheed Martin U-2 test pilot. “It’s about saving lives. Troops on the ground may not know it, but we’ve got their backs. We’re watching out for them, and saving even one life makes the mission worth it.”

“Without a wingman or another person in the plane, time in the U-2 can be lonely; completing the mission makes it satisfying and fulfilling,” said Stu Broce, retired U.S. Air Force U-2 pilot and current ER-2 pilot, NASA. “You know you did most of that on your own, and supporting the troops was my motivation when I served. I owed it to them to be my best in the cockpit at all times.”

“The boots on the ground are my heroes,” said Rob Rowe, retired U.S. Air Force U-2 pilot and current Lockheed Martin U-2 test pilot. “Intel is as necessary to our troops as boots or fatigues. That’s why we fly, to provide the best intel possible.”

Call Signs and Memorable Moments

Call signs become a pilot’s first name. Let’s be clear: you don’t ask for a call sign and you definitely don’t request a specific one. They’re assigned by squadron-mates, and may be chosen based on a play on words, a pun, a dubious accomplishment or a myriad of other reasons.

Greg Nelson received his call sign based on the television show Coach and its lead star, Craig T. Nelson. “Coach” Nelson was well known for coaching new U-2 pilots. Fun fact, Craig T. Nelson played a U-2 pilot in Call to Glory.  

“I remember that on one particular weapon inspections mission, we got the request to fly overhead to ensure that when inspectors went through the front door, weapons weren’t simultaneously going out the back door,” said Coach. “In hindsight, it sounds funny and seems like something out of a cartoon, but at the time, it was a serious mission that I was proud to support.”

Stu Broce was initially referred to as “Beef,” but a sister squadron pilot had already claimed the call sign. So Beef became “Meat” Stu. Get it? Meat stew.

“Once, I was on a mission on Christmas, and during a lull, I turned off all of the lights in the cockpit just to get familiar with what it would look like without a generator,” said Meat. “It was really wild being in complete darkness in the middle of nowhere, literally.”

Rob Rowe was initially called “Rut” Rowe, a la Scooby Doo’s “uh-oh,” but that quickly changed the day that Rob crash-landed in front of his peers, skidding to a stop with a fire under the fuselage. From that day forward, he became known as “Skid” Rowe.

“We occasionally see fireballs - very large, very bright meteors - while flying, but on this particular night, I looked up to see a fireball directly overhead,” said Skid. “It instantaneously went from pitch black to very bright. The fireball left a contrail and you could see parts of it flying off. It was definitely the biggest fireball I’ve ever seen.”

Do you have a question for U-2 pilots? Stay tuned on Twitter for updates on the opportunity to ask!

July 29, 2015

Skunk Works Careers

Flying High with the NASA ER-2

NASA’s two ER-2s were built as U-2R models in the 1980s with a unique configuration designed for testing. These two aircraft never flew for the Air Force but have played an important role in Earth science research because of their ability to fly into the lower stratosphere at subsonic speeds, enabling direct stratosphere sampling as well as virtual satellite simulation missions. The aircraft’s unique configuration enables studies such as stratospheric ozone concentrations over Antarctica and the Arctic. Learn more.  

Fun Fact: NASA’s ER-2 set a world-altitude record for the class of aircraft with a takeoff weight between 26,455 and 35,275 pounds Nov. 19, 1998, when the aircraft reached 68,700 feet.