The 140-Mph Chase Cars Of The U.S. Air Force

Fifty years ago, the United States Air Force discovered its top-secret Lockheed U-2 spy plane was nightmarishly tricky to fly. To keep aircraft from crashing, they began using high-speed chase/guide cars during take-offs and landings. Government-issue Camaro Z/28, anyone?

The process is pretty simple: The Air Force buys fast and relatively inexpensive Detroit muscle and puts a highly trained pilot in the driver's seat. Those pilots then act as ground-based wingmen for the U-2s in the air, talking them through runway operations.

The chase cars are nothing if not necessary — the U-2 is an incredibly dangerous aircraft. It was designed in the mid-1950s as a replacement for the government's existing surveillance fleet, which mostly consisted of converted bombers and fighters. It was intended to go farther, faster, and higher than any regular-use airplane before it, and to help fight the Cold War without actually drawing any blood. Because Francis Gary Powers was shot down in a U-2 fifty years ago this month, we decided to take a look at the plane's substantial car connection.

The 140-Mph Chase Cars Of The U.S. Air Force

What the Hell is That Thing?

First, a little background. The U-2 was drawn up by Lockheed engineer Clarence "Kelly" Johnson, the man behind the company's legendary "Skunk Works" division and the designer responsible for the both the P-38 Lightning and the sinister-looking F-104 Starfighter. It was thought that if an aircraft could be made to fly high enough — say, 70,000 feet, or above roughly 95 percent of the Earth's atmosphere — that it would be beyond the reach of enemy fighters, missiles, and possibly even radar.

The 140-Mph Chase Cars Of The U.S. Air Force

An early U-2 painted in NASA colors as part of the attempted cover-up of the Powers incident. Check out the Austin-Healey at far left (click to enlarge). Probably not a chase car, but who knows?

To reach that height, Johnson essentially created a jet-powered space glider. His design featured an obsessive focus on minimum weight, so much so that, in the beginning, landing gear weren't even included — the U-2 was originally intended to take off on a wheeled, ground-bound cart and land on a thin fuselage skid. The aircraft's skinny, long wings were so efficient that the first flight came by accident, the plane leaping into the air on its own during a high-speed taxi test in 1955. The flight experience was akin to that of early astronauts or pilots of the Air Force's awesome X-planes: You didn't so much fly the U-2 as turn the thing on and point it at God.

Naturally, there were downsides. Because the U-2 was so specialized, it was amazingly difficult to fly. Johnson's design placed all the fuel in the wings and aimed for light controls at altitude; the lower the U-2 flew, the heavier its unassisted controls got, to the point where pilots literally had to brute-force the plane around during take-off and landing. Balance was so critical that the plane's spy cameras used split film reels, one on each side of the aircraft and feeding into each other, so that weight distribution wouldn't change during flight. Crosswinds tossed it around like a rag doll. Because of the altitude and depressurization risk, pilots flew in helmeted space suits and were all but blind near the ground. In the U-2's half-century of service, fewer than 850 men and women have been certified to fly it.

The 140-Mph Chase Cars Of The U.S. Air Force

Landings: Something Other Than Fun

Still, landings were the biggest problem. The replacement for Johnson's cart-and-skid ground system was a compact setup — two centrally located landing gear in the fuselage and one detachable "pogo" gear on each wing — that turned the U-2 into little more than a 30,000-pound bicycle. Because of the high-lift wings, pilots didn't so much land the plane as fly it really close to the ground (usually about two feet), stall it, and then fall out of the sky. On top of that, serious ground effect (the same thing that keeps half-planes like the Soviet Ekranoplan in the air) meant that the wings greatly resisted landing. Bringing a U-2 to earth required wrestling yourself from the sky, not slipping out gracefully.

And you didn't want to drop a wingtip — that's a 105-foot wingspan, if you're wondering — at speed, dig in, and crash. And you couldn't see. And you were usually at the tail end of a flight lasting ten hours or more. And and and. As this funny (and NSFW) video shows, there's a whole hell of a lot that can go wrong:

Remember, these guys are some of the best pilots in the world. If they can't always get a handle on it, Kelly's gal must have teeth.

The 140-Mph Chase Cars Of The U.S. Air Force

...And This is How You Do It

Predictably, in the U-2's early days, a lot went wrong. The plane that's been called the most difficult-to-land aircraft in the Air Force's inventory had so many landing incidents/problems/crashes in its early days that the Air Force soon came up with a solution. Between ten and 30 people are needed to launch a U-2, and almost as many are required to land it. The procedure for bringing one down involves a chase car driven by a fellow U-2 pilot and a host of spotters in radio contact. It goes something like this:

  • Slow down, fly down to the deck at around 140 mph


  • Have chase cars drive on runway, hauling ass behind you and offering radio advice


  • Land plane in polite, controlled crash


  • Don't screw up.

Because of the speeds involved, the chase cars are usually high-performance cars. They wait at the end of the runway, and when the U-2 passes, they burn rubber to keep up, calling out altitude and wing attitude over the radio. When the airplane's main gear is roughly two feet over the tarmac, the pilot deploys several sets of spoilers and flaps to reduce lift and minimize wing drop, lowers the plane down, slows to a stop while balancing on the two center wheels, and then drops a wingtip to the ground (they have titanium skidplates for this purpose) and stops. The "pogo" wing landing gear that fell off on take-off are then reattached, and the U-2 taxis to its hangar. The addition of the chase cars all but eliminated serious landing accidents.

The 140-Mph Chase Cars Of The U.S. Air Force

The following text comes from a story that originally appeared in the May 2005 issue of Motor Trend:

"Your main job as the mobile... is to let the guy know how high he is off the ground," says Major Shane Johnson, deputy operations commander for the 99th ERS. "The U-2 is a pretty fragile aircraft, The 140-Mph Chase Cars Of The U.S. Air Forceand if you land hard, you can break it. At first it's a little unnerving because you're not used to going that fast and because you're not used to chasing an airplane down a runway. You kind of have to get used to it. But after awhile you do, and it's just another day at work."

Take-offs are the easy part. During landings the drivers not only need speed, but the skill to slot in directly behind a fast moving jet without getting in the way. "You don't want to hit the airplane and you don't want to flip the car," the major says. "As you make those fast run-ins you have to get your aim point. It's kind of like doing a rejoin in formation. You just come zooming in from behind and follow along about 60 feet from the aircraft.

This is a U-2 pilot hauling ass down a 12,000-foot runway in a Pontiac GTO while chasing a landing aircraft. There's no talk-down — this is a "quiet," or unassisted landing, meant to replicate emergency conditions — but the driver's chatter is worth the price of admission:

...and here's a Corvette doing the same thing. Keep in mind that the speeds are a lot greater than they look, and the distances between car and aircraft a lot smaller than they appear.

You Said Something About Cars?

That I did. The Air Force began using chase cars early on in the U-2 program, all the way back to the days of the project's 1950s Groom Lake (a.k.a. Area 51) testing. The first examples were reportedly Ford station wagons, typically showroom models with the biggest V-8 available. Chevrolet El Caminos (ha!) followed, as did a host of good-natured abuse at the hands of servicemen.

By all accounts, the El Caminos were capable and long-lived, if a bit slow and underbraked. They lasted until 1985, when the Air Force borrowed a Special Service Package (SSP) Ford Mustang from the California Highway Patrol. (The SSP was a lightweight, 5.0-liter V-8-powered police model that produced between 180 and 225 hp depending on year. You can read more about it here.) The Mustang handed the El Camino its ass, the Air Force was thrilled, and it bought 20 examples of the car over the following decade. Most of them were automatics, almost all of them were blue, and with the exception of a few stenciled logos, a light bar, and some auxiliary switches, they were stock. One is currently in civilian hands after being stationed in Europe, but the rest are rumored to have been crushed.

View gallery »

Fourth-gen Camaros in Chevrolet's B4C/Special Service trim came after that, lasting until a few years ago, at which point they were replaced with 2005-2006 Pontiac GTOs. The V-8-powered Pontiac G8 GT recently filtered into the fleet, though it appears that the GTOs have yet to be removed from service. No matter the model, the chief draws are usually acceleration capability, high-speed stability, and parts continuity.

View gallery »

From an article on the Air Force's website:

"The job is awesome," said Maj. Luke Lokowich with the 1st Reconnaissance Squadron. "You get to go 110 miles per hour every day, and (the U-2 is) the only aircraft in the Air Force that has (a person in) a car driving behind it talking a pilot through a landing."

"(You come) back from a long mission flying for nine or 10 hours, you are going to be tired (and) stagnant, and your visibility is really hindered in the suit," said Maj. Pete Van Pelt, a U-2 instructor pilot. "Your ability to feel, your dexterity and couple that with the fact this plane is really difficulty to land on a good day, it's really nice to have an extra set of eyes outside the airplane..."

Outside? Hell, what about inside?

We can't get enough of this stuff, and apparently, neither can Top Gear's James May. (I watch that video once a month on average, and it never gets old. The Earth is an amazing place.)

The U-2 is still in service; the aircraft that was created to help contest the Cold War ended up outliving both its successor and the global mindset that birthed it. The Air Force operates a small fleet out of Beale AFB in California, U-2s are being used for surveillance in Iraq and Afghanistan, and NASA recently tasked its example with mapping the Gulf of Mexico oil spill. And now, for some odd reason, we kind of want a blue Fox-body Mustang with a light bar on the roof.

What, you don't?

Photo Credits: U.S. Air Force, Motor Trend

References: U.S. Department of Defense, GrandAmGT.com, Motor Trend, SSPMustang.org, United States Air Force here and here, USMilitary.About.com.