by Lt. Col. Jeff Olesen, USAF
Don Wright, one of the relatively few pilots to have flown the spectacular U-2, is a high-altitude aviation pioneer. But Don’s view of life extends beyond the lofty cockpit vision of the Earth from above 70,000 feet. His experiences embody the American spirit of adventure, spun here in an entertaining tale I found hard to put down.
The U-2 was the first of America’s high-altitude reconnaissance aircraft. It was conceived in secrecy during the height of the Cold War and built by a hand-picked team led by famous aircraft designer Kelly Johnson. For more than 50 years this sleek, aerodynamic marvel, often dubbed the Dragon Lady or the Deuce, has continued to play a role in our country’s military preparedness, yet there have been just over 1,000 pilots who have actually flown her. Don Wright, U-2 pilot 192, is one of them.
In the years Don served as an elite member of the early U-2 pilot team, high-altitude flying was literally being invented with every takeoff. The partial-pressure suit keeping him alive was basic, uncomfortable, and archaic compared with current technology, and almost nothing was known about the short- and long-term effects of high-altitude exposure. Each mission was a test flight, and mistakes often meant accidents, loss of life, and the attention of the President of the United States.
The U-2 continues its reign in the twenty-first century as the most challenging aircraft to pilot in the U.S. inventory. It unapologetically taps into the deepest skill-reserves of any pilot daring enough to strap it on, and it is unforgiving of any shortness of skill, fortitude, or confidence. Today’s U-2 is equipped with a sophisticated GPS (global positioning system), as
opposed to the crude sextant/drift sight arrangement of early models, and the engine is more reliable. The plane also has been enlarged a bit, resulting in some improvement in aerodynamic stability (but not much), and the pilot now
wears a full-pressure suit, the design of which has been directly influenced by those 50-plus years of lessons learned. Still, I find piloting the U-2 to be the most challenging, the most scary, and the most satisfying experience I have ever known. When talking about flying the Deuce, a common saying around the squadron bar is “You’re ten seconds away from disaster at any given moment.” The view alone is worth it.
Lt. Colonel Jeff Olesen, USAF
U-2 pilot Lt. Colonel Olesen is a recipient of the 2002 Kolligian Trophy for a remarkable aircraft save over Iraq in 2001. This trophy, established in 1958 and named after a young lieutenant whose aircraft disappeared off the coast of California in 1955, is awarded each year by the air force chief of staff in recognition of outstanding feats of airmanship. Lt. Colonel Olesen is only the second U-2 pilot to receive it.