The U-2 is among America’s most legendary military aircraft, along with the likes of groundbreaking planes like the SR-71 Blackbird and F-117 Nighthawk. First flown all the way back in 1955, this high-altitude reconnaissance aircraft has a service record that stretches across six decades, and although talk of the U-2’s retirement has been around for years now, they continue to fly for both the U.S. Air Force and NASA all around the world.
There’s just one problem with that: the U-2 may be ready to fly anywhere on the planet, but the chase cars used to help land the unwieldy platform aren’t. Unlike most other aircraft, the U-2’s pilot visibility is so low that they actually rely on a second pilot riding in a high-powered chase car to provide course corrections and directions to the pilot on board the plane as it comes in for a landing. Without that second pilot in the chase car, U-2 pilots would be literally flying blind. Because the U-2 relies on just two sets of landing gear tucked into the fuselage and retractable “pogos” in each wing, landing the extremely broad U-2 is difficult enough even with a chase pilot assisting.
“The safest way to land this jet is a nice two-point landing,” explained one U-2 pilot. “To do that we need a pilot, who is also qualified to land the jet, to drive quickly, right behind it, and give the pilot cues as far as how high his main landing gear is above the runway. I’ve got to make sure the pilot has the situational awareness he needs at that critical time that he is bringing the jet to a full stall. In the safest way possible, you need a car to follow and be in radio communication with the pilot.”
Of course, the U-2 is an American aircraft, so it makes sense that the U.S. Air Force would turn to Detroit when looking for its latest chase cars — and therein lies the problem. The Dodge Chargers the Air Force uses for the pilot chase cars haven’t been certified for flight by the Air Transportability Test Loading Agency, so they may not be approved to accompany the U-2s on their deployment to a Royal Air Force base in Mildenhall in the United Kingdom.
“They have no fixed area to be restrained or tied down in the aircraft, so there’s no black and white way on how to transport them,” Staff Sgt. Ryan Murray, the 305th Aerial Port Squadron load planning supervisor, said. “When they arrive to our area like that, they are deemed non-airworthy and that’s when we have to figure out how we can load them safely or we may have to make the call that we can’t load it.”
If that happens, the Air Force will be left to source new chase vehicles on the other side of the Atlantic. Europe, of course, has a wide variety of cars to offer that are fast enough to serve as a U-2 chase car, though it’s possible that the Air Force could procure new Chargers in the UK, if they have concerns about familiarity with the vehicles. Other vehicles that are commonly used as chase cars include Pontiac GTOs and Chevrolet Camaros.
As silly as it seems, concerns about how to properly load a Dodge Charger into a military transport plane have Air Force officials jumping through hoops, which just goes to show — the United States military can overcome any adversary… except bureaucracy.