Prologue: 70,000 Feet and Descending!!!


The view was magnificent—a panorama of crystal clarity and brilliant hues. I could just see the curvature of the Earth on the horizon, and the land below appeared as a single dimension, a bird’s-eye view from one of the highest-flying aircraft in the world. My body was encased in a partialpressure suit and space helmet, standard gear for a flight into the stratosphere. The plane was a single-engine, single-seat air force reconnaissance aircraft, designated the U-2. The flight was one of my last in a training program I’d begun more than two months before, a “howgozit” ride to see if I could hack the mission in this out-of-this-world environment.

Just a short hour earlier, I’d slipped above 60,000 feet, received clearance from air traffic control for VFR (visual flight rules), and clicked off the radio. As I climbed above 70,000 feet, I could almost count the revolutions of the Pratt & Whitney jet engine as it ticked over. Otherwise, the silence was absolute. I was as alone as I’d ever been, though it occurred to me that at that moment I was probably physically closer to God than any human on the planet.

Now it was time to go home.

The requirements of the mission were limited, but the most important was the descent. The long, thin wings of this aerodynamic marvel supported the machine with minimum drag, but the U-2 flew close to the coffin corner. Deviating from the proscribed speed by even a few knots could be deadly, a reality that required vigilant concentration and precision flying. To prevent a flameout in this oxygen-starved environment, I could throttle the engine back only slightly. Instead, I extended the gear and speed brakes to create an aerodynamic drag and allow the aircraft to descend.

During the ground flight briefing, my instructor had spelled out in great detail what was to happen next. “Stopcock the engine, Don. You need the real-life experience of flying in a controlled situation with your pressure suit fully inflated.”

“You gotta be kidding,” I’d exclaimed, but the instructor had just nodded and smiled.

I reestablished radio contact with air traffic control and began a wide downward spiral over Davis-Monthan Air Force Base outside Tucson, Arizona. I had plenty of time to run the required checklists and retest the suit with an override button that inflated it temporarily. Everything worked perfectly.

Okay, I thought, it’s now or never. With a slight hesitation and a quick upward thought, I stopcocked the engine. The partial-pressure suit worked as advertised. Compressed air filled the enmeshed capstans, pulling the suit tighter and tighter until my entire body was encased in a gigantic bear hug and I lost about 90 percent of my mobility. Gradually, my breathing reversed as oxygen was forced into my lungs, which had been trying to breathe out against the pressure. I’d experienced similar conditions in the practice chamber on the ground, so the feelings were not totally unfamiliar. But this time it was real, claustrophobic, and fearsome.

Surviving was only part of the equation. I also had to think and fly the aircraft, and in order to relight the engine, I had to glide to a much lower altitude, to a place where there was enough oxygen for restarting. That powerless glide took at least 15 minutes.

Adrenaline pumped through my system, clearing my brain and clarifying my thoughts. I almost reveled in the discomfort, an accomplishment of mind over matter that produced a sense of euphoria and caused me to laugh out loud. I was enjoying this strange new adventure.

At 35,000 feet, I followed the ten steps outlined in the checklist for relighting the engine. Soon the comforting growl of the Pratt & Whitney filled the cockpit, the pressure suit deflated, and I took a long, deep breath. The ride home was a short one, but the road I’d

taken to get there had been long and winding, a journey of many miles, many years, and a million lessons.

“How’d it go, Captain?” my instructor asked after I landed.

“Piece of cake, Sir. Piece of cake.”