Why does the U-2 need chase cars?

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. Mikko LaValley
  • 99th Reconnaissance Squadron
When new Airmen show up at Beale AFB they know next to nothing about the U-2, its mission, and why we need cars on the runway.

Seems strange doesn't it? that an airplane would require a car in order to land safely... but it is true. Nothing about the U-2 is normal. But like anything else in the Air Force we need Wingmen, ours just happens to drive a fast car.

Once a pilot is fully pressure suited up and ready to fly a mission two things become readily apparent. First, once that pressure suit is on it makes you feel like you are wearing a sleeping bag, stuffing a football helmet on your head, and ski gloves to make dexterous movements even harder. (Oh, yeah, then you lock yourself in the closet for 10+ hours!) Second, the visibility in the cockpit just got really restricted. The helmet cuts off large portions of the peripheral vision. Without the pressure suit helmet you could see side references and sometimes the wings, with the helmet on, all that is gone. Worse yet, on humid days the bottom section of the front canopy can fog over. The translation to all of that is that you can't see very well and you need a Wingman to help you land.

This is the point where the Mobil Officer comes in as our Wingman. The Mobil is another qualified U-2 pilot who is driving the chase car (we've used: Camaros, Pontiacs, Subarus, Mercedes, Audis... etc.). That car has to be able to accelerate from zero to close to 100 mph in a turn to come into position behind the airplane on the runway. While accelerating and turning the Mobil begins to make radio calls to the pilot beginning when the aircraft is ten feet off the runway. These calls tell the pilot how far off the ground he/she is, whether or not they are line up with center line, if the wings are level, and if any control inputs are needed. On a windy, rough air day, the Mobil can be extremely busy helping the pilot ride a 40,000 pound bicycle down the runway!

So next time you see one of the cars on base going to the gas station, or zooming down the runway realize that in the car somebody is working really hard at being a good Wingman to get our pilots and our airplanes safely on deck.