Kelly Johnson’s Skunk Works® Legacy Lives on with U-2 Project CARE


In 1956, famed-Skunk Works® engineer, Kelly Johnson, delivered the twentieth U-2A, $2 million under the contracted budget; a feat accomplished through the team’s dedication to efficiency and innovation. Fast forward 60 years and the U-2 program continues to build on Kelly Johnson’s legacy through the U-2S Project Cockpit Altitude Reduction Effort (CARE), delivering outstanding results, $4.5 million under the contracted budget –a 21 percent savings.

Prior to Project CARE, the U-2 cockpit atmospheric pressure was approximately 30,000 feet, equivalent to Mount Everest. Keep in mind that most commercial aircraft are pressurized to 6,000 to 8,000 feet.

With the escalation of flight hours during Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Freedom’s Sentinel, missions became longer and more frequent, which resulted in an increase in the number of pilots getting decompression sickness. More commonly known as “the bends,” decompression sickness is the expansion of dissolved gas, usually nitrogen, in the body when exposed to decreased barometric pressures (ascending in an airplane means the air pressure decreases).

The U.S. Air Force recognized something needed to be done and collaborated with Lockheed Martin to fix the issue.

Embracing the Challenge

Lockheed Martin determined it must physically change the cockpit to ensure a more benign environment for the pilot.

The team effectively beefed up the structural components of the airframe and changed parameters to obtain more bleed air –essentially very hot energetic air bled off of the engine to be used for a number of different purposes, in this case, cockpit pressure– to double the pressure.

“Imagine you have a pilot inside of a balloon, and you have to double the amount of air inside without changing the size of the balloon,” said Melani Austin, U-2 program director, Lockheed Martin. “In order for the balloon to handle the additional pressure without changing size or shape, you have to strengthen the outer envelope of the balloon.”

By doubling the cockpit pressure, the team reduced the effective altitude to approximately 14,600 feet, half of what pilots were previously experiencing.


Teamwork at its Finest

The majority of the modifications took place at Beale Air Force Base while others took place in Palmdale, California during regularly scheduled Programmed Depot Maintenance (PDM). Lockheed Martin engineers and field service team members worked alongside the Beale Air Force Base team to execute the six contracts to modify the U-2 fleet’s cockpits.

Despite the magnitude of the project and the underlying unknown challenges, the Beale-Lockheed Martin team delivered the modifications in record time and under the contracted budget by working together quickly and seamlessly.

“Coming in under budget and being able to return $4.5 million to our customer is really reminiscent of Kelly Johnson giving back $2 million on the first U-2 contract for 20 aircraft,” said Austin. “I’m incredibly proud of the team for their hard work and collaboration. They are a testament to Kelly Johnson’s legacy.”

Flying with Ease

The majority of the modifications were completed in June 2014. The final aircraft modification took place while going through the regular PDM process, and was delivered in 2015 along with the last de-obligation contract to return the final amount of the $4.5 million total savings.

“Project CARE resulted in a great modification, making flights significantly safer for the pilot,” said Greg ‘Coach’ Nelson, U-2 test pilot, Lockheed Martin. “It’s virtually impossible to get the bends below 18,000 feet, and with the new cabin altitude at 14,000 feet, it has completely eliminated that threat for routine operations.”

Since the implementation of Project CARE, there have not been any new cases of decompression sickness.

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