We are a team of U-2 pilots currently working at Lockheed Martin. U-2 pilots tackle many types of missions - from intelligence collection and surveying for IEDs to natural disaster assistance and treaty verification. We fly an aircraft that shares a name with a great band, can go from take-off to 63,000 feet in a mere 45 minutes, and we eat space food out of tubes –everything from peaches to beef stroganoff. Built in the 1980s, today’s U-2 is completely different from the U-2 shown in next week’s premiere of Steven Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies. Curious about the U-2 and what we do? Ask away!

“J. Scott” Winstead: Former U-2 pilot and current U-2 strategic business manager. JScott has 26 years of U.S. Air Force high-altitude intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance leadership experience, including the U-2 and Global Hawk. He now works as the Lockheed Martin U-2 strategic business manager.

Greg “Coach” Nelson: U-2 Test Pilot for Lockheed Martin. Coach flew the U-2 operationally for the U.S. Air Force for 15 years, including missions throughout the world. He now works as a Lockheed Martin U-2 test pilot.

Rob “Skid” Rowe: U-2 Chief Test Pilot for Lockheed Martin. Skid has more than 31 years of pilot experience with the U.S. Air Force and DARPA. He has logged a total of 9,300 flight hours, 5,300 of them on the U-2 aircraft –the second highest number of any U-2 pilot in history.

My Proof: https://twitter.com/LockheedMartin/status/652167847469146112

Our communications rep, Dana, will help us type out our answers.

Comments: 131 • Responses: 41  • Date: 

super_shizmo_matic14 karma

Mod of /r/specialaccess here, this is a two part question. I've heard many times that U2 pilots at operating altitude reported traffic "above" them on some missions, has this happened to you? Second part: We posted a Lockheed skunkworks pdf showing a timeline of still classified platforms over the years, any idea when Lockheed will reveal the one from 1984?

LockheedMartin29 karma

Skid: I've actually seen an SR-71 while flying the U-2.

LockheedMartin14 karma

JScott: Other pilots have seen weather balloons above and below while flying.

super_shizmo_matic8 karma

I was referring to classified LTA platforms that operate in near space / joint warfighting space.

LockheedMartin20 karma

Coach: We can't comment about classified platforms.

super_shizmo_matic9 karma

Hypothetically, if there were a manned near space platform, would that pilot have come from the U2 program?

LockheedMartin11 karma

Skid: Not necessarily.

rblue9 karma

I'll give you nine dollars and an Arby's coupon if you can give us some juicy classified stuff.

We won't tell anyone.

LockheedMartin18 karma

JScott: Here's some juicy info: my wife doesn't have a tattoo.

LockheedMartin19 karma

Coach: What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas.

LockheedMartin14 karma

Skid: Maintain the mystique.

spicypepperoni11 karma

How's Bono doing?

LockheedMartin18 karma

Skid: He's making the world a better place, just like the U-2 does in its reconnaissance missions.

leadfoot32311 karma

What is the advantage of using a manned platform like the U-2 over using an unmanned platform like the RQ-4 Global Hawk?

LockheedMartin20 karma

JScott: In the U-2, we can compress the flight envelope; if you have a threat coming your way you can use the entire flight envelope to evade. We can see and avoid bad weather and can easily deploy to new locations. Manned platforms are more readily reconfigurable because you don't have to break into the autonomous flying software when you deploy new sensors.

Redmittor3 karma

you can use the entire flight envelope to evade

Wouldn't a drone have a larger envelope to begin with? In terms of g-loads sustainable on the airframe during maneuvers, and really, as a consequence of being much smaller and without a physically weak human link? (While still retaining the cognitive edge of a human being in responding to an unplanned for contingency - if a remote piloting comm-link is still open)

LockheedMartin14 karma

JScott: The difference is between a fighter drone, which seems to be what you are referring to, versus a high-altitude reconnaissance drone, which is similar to the U-2. Both drones require larger engineering safety margins for their operating envelope. In the case of the high-altitude drone, G limits versus human capacity is not an issue. Most drones have a narrow flight envelope while manned platforms have a larger flight envelope that can be exploited by the pilot as needed.

TehRoot8 karma

The U-2 was designed as a high-altitude reconaissance aircraft, but over the course of its history was there any attempt to try and arm the U-2 for certain purposes due to its advantageous flight profile at the time? I've never seen anything of the sort, but I figured it might be worth an ask.

I know Lockheed Martin managed to convince the USAF to try the YF-12 configuration on the heels of the XF-108 cancellation, so I'm curious if anything like that was ever explored in the U-2s history.

If you can tell me of course ;)

LockheedMartin12 karma

JScott: There has never been an operational U-2 that has been armed, and because of this, the United Nations has often used us to support their needs.

RogertheStroklund7 karma

So what do you guys use these days for wing landing vehicles? In my military service, I've heard people claim you use everything from Corvettes with truck springs to Crown Vics with 500hp engine swaps, so I've always wondered what the answer is.

LockheedMartin14 karma

JScott: I think you're referring to our "U-2 mobiles." We currently use a GTO but in the past, we have used Camaros, Mustangs and El Caminos.

ENRN7 karma

What did you do to pass the time up there?

While I am sure it was a neat experience, did it grow old and you found yourself wanting to fly something that has short missions, no funny suits, and had decent landing characteristics.

LockheedMartin13 karma

JScott: We do a lot. We monitor threats, listen for traffic control and weather alerts, coordinate activity with Intelligence and communicate with ground forces.

Coach: All U-2 pilots do fly something that flies shorter missions without suits. We are all dual-qualified because flying opportunities are limited. We need to fly another aircraft to maintain currency.

ENRN5 karma

Sorry for the reply:

So you can't listen to J-Zay on your iPod?

What are typical other aircrafts you fly? Do you all fly the same type?

LockheedMartin6 karma

JScott: T-38s and Beech Barons

j5kDM3akVnhv7 karma

I've always heard there is a tremendously small airspeed window once you guys get to mission altitude. Too slow - stall - bend or break the aircraft recovering. Too fast - bend or break the aircraft from stress.

Is this still a factor with the latest variants or was it more of a concern for the older models? Can you elaborate on "small window"?

Thanks for your service.

LockheedMartin9 karma

Skid: Although rumor is strong about the U-2's famous flight envelope, it's a remote consequence unless excesses in manhandling are prolonged. We are further from the stall than buffeting, which is the high-end of the flight envelope.

Jay786126 karma

How vulnerable are U-2 aircraft to air defenses (as far as you can publicly say)?

LockheedMartin12 karma

Coach: The U-2 has significant defensive capabilities against a variety of threats.

jmkenna6 karma

So from reading about the U-2, I gather that the newer models (from the U-2R) have an all-flying tail for trim control, to include pitching the vertical stabilizer fore and aft (effectively varying the vertical stab sweep angle). Is this correct? Why does the vertical stab move with the horizontal stab trim?

LockheedMartin11 karma

Coach: That's absolutely true, the U-2 has an all-flying tail for trim control. Vertical stab is bolted to the horizontal stab and moves as one unit, like a Mooney (if you're familiar with that).

RogertheStroklund5 karma

Possible two part question;

How long of a mission could you guys be expected to fly with the machines you have?


If you are expected to fly longer missions, what can you do midflight to maintain your readiness?

LockheedMartin8 karma

Coach: As it currently stands, regulations limit pilots to 12-hour flights but the aircraft can fly longer.

LockheedMartin9 karma

Skid: U-2 pilots stay hydrated and control their diet so they can fly extended missions. JScott: Some tube food has caffeine, and there are flight surgeon supplied "go pills."

Empigee5 karma

I have read reports about how much of America's military aircraft fleet is aging. Is that a problem with the U-2 plane?

LockheedMartin9 karma

Coach: The current fleet of U-2s was built in the late 1980s, which is after the F-15, F-16 and at the same time as the F-117 and F-18. We are getting older but the U-2 is rebuilt every seven years or 4,800 flight hours to become nearly a new airplane. There is tons of service life left in the U-2, nearly 80 percent.

jskoker5 karma

What is it like at 70,000ft compared to ground level? Its something I've always wanted to experience but probably won't happen anytime soon.

LockheedMartin10 karma

JScott: You can see the curvature of the earth. The gradations that you can see above ground level. As you start to look up it’s pitch black, and sometimes you can see brighter stars during the day. 

Phyrexian_Starengine5 karma

If you had the chance to fly any aircraft/spacecraft ever made, which would it be?

(My answer to that question would be the SR-71).

LockheedMartin9 karma

Skid: I've just seen The Martian, and I'd love to be on one of those missions. If only you could compress the transit time down from a couple of years to a couple of weeks.

LockheedMartin7 karma

Coach: SR-71 would have been very cool.

RNAPII4 karma

Are any of you the pilots that would do touch and go landings at the Chico, ca airport? Did you fly out of Beale? What's your favorite aircraft to fly?

LockheedMartin6 karma

All: We've all done touch-and-go landings at Chico. We've also flown out of Beale.

Coach: My favorite aircraft to fly is the one that's put in front of me to fly. Skid: I love flying everything. JScott: T-38

dormyguy4 karma

Hi! So thrilled you're doing this AMA, thanks a lot. My question: seeing the Blackbird was basically developed as a result of the U-2 shoot down, how was the relationship between the pilots of the two aircrafts? And did someone ever make the transition, how did that go?

LockheedMartin14 karma

JScott: The SR-71 design was actually started before the U-2 shoot down, May 1, 1960.

The relationship was a friendly rivalry. They drank martinis, we drink beer.

There are several U-2 pilots that were trained on both aircraft.

it_am_silly4 karma

What's the weirdest/coolest thing you've ever seen? I mean like atmospheric phenomenon, ball lightning etc

LockheedMartin13 karma

Skid: Fireballs (meteoric space debris burning up in the atmosphere). I saw two in one night. I saw one go overhead. It lit up everything around me, and I couldn't believe it.

Coach: I've seen the moon come up below the horizon; because of the high altitude, the perceived horizon is space-atmosphere line but the real horizon is hidden a few degrees lower.

it_am_silly2 karma

The fireballs sound so cool! As an (aspiring) astronomer I've always wanted to see fireballs.

The moon sounds amazing - I assume it would rise slightly faster than usual too if you're flying towards it?

LockheedMartin10 karma

Skid: The moon really hangs on the horizon like a red flat football for a long time and then it just seems to pop up due to the lens effect of the atmosphere.

nooneimportan74 karma

When you're flying, are you always 100% focused on the task at hand? Or does your mind wander at all? It's funny to hear you say "we eat space food out of tubes", but is it all business when you're in the air?

LockheedMartin8 karma

Skid: Focus is tight on take-off and landing.

JScott: Some missions are intense.

Coach: It depends on where you are in the mission. I've been on missions where I'm busy the entire flight.

koffeekan3 karma

Whats it like walking around with balls of fucking steel? Also on a more serious note, are they adapting new SIGINT and IMINT packages (like Gorgon Stare) for use with the U2S platform? Or are they only doing those for drones?

LockheedMartin9 karma

Skid: It's hard to be humble when you're making history, but somehow we do it. We can't comment on the packages but things are always evolving.

Andrew1153433 karma

Hello,how does one become a U-2 Pilot? Like what are the qualifications? How rigorous is the training?

LockheedMartin8 karma

Skid: A pilot gets interviewed with paperwork initially and then is selected to perform a physical interview by qualifying in the aircraft. It’s a make or break situation. You are either accepted in the squadron or not. We like to see pilots with multiple qualifications in other aircraft, but it is not a requirement. It’s a brand new weapon system, so of course the training is rigorous. But for a professional pilot, usually not a problem. 

outamyhead2 karma

How sketchy is it to be flying at that altitude, besides oxygen being a potential issue, is the plane unforgiving for any sudden flight movements with the air being so thin, or do the massive wings make up for that?

LockheedMartin6 karma

Coach: The U-2 flies very well at high-altitude. It was designed for that. It feels like you're flying a maneuverable fighter. At low altitude, it feels like you're flying a heavy truck. However, the aircraft is relatively unforgiving if you exceed the flight envelope at-altitude. Skid: The auto-pilot is optimized at 65,000 feet.

j_one_k2 karma

How's your cosmic ray dose up there? Do you accumulate more dose on U2 missions or on other flights?

LockheedMartin5 karma

JScott: We do monitor cosmic radiation fluctuations just like we monitor the weather. If it's too high we won't fly.

Tolowery2 karma

I've always been a huge fan of the sr-71 blackbird. It's a shame it is retired and out of service. The fastest man made plane ever built that is not vulnerable to missile fire. I understand it is a very costly and risky operation, but it seems to be much more effective then the u-2, no offense. The U-2 is a great plane. But my question is, if the Blackbird were still able to be in service, would the U-2 be retired?

LockheedMartin8 karma

Coach: SR-71 was designed to overly a target, collect intel and then keep going, just like a satellite. The U-2, on the other hand, can overly the target area and remain there all day. U-2 and SR-71 are similar but the satellites replaced the SR-71.

Tolowery1 karma

But the sr71's airframe grew strong as it underwent flights and the heating and cooling procedures. Anyway, it's told that to manage one titan flight costs around 250 million while just producing a satellite costs 1 billion, not including launch procedures. The U-2 is an outstanding plane to still be in service and operate under different situations. A plane like the Blackbird, one of the fastest and most stealthy planes ever built, should live it's legacy. If the Blackbird were to ever be recomissioned, would you any of you consider flying it?

LockheedMartin5 karma

All: In a heart beat. We would love to fly a new high-performance aircraft.

Redmittor1 karma

Is this a reference to the MASSIVE (and well loved) cruise speed of the Blackbird? (Somebody'll come along and post that story shortly)

If it is, shouldn't it come with a caveat? Satellites are always going to have to gun it faster than 7.2 km/s to stay in orbit, and while the Blackbird can careen through the skies, it doesn't HAVE to keep flying at Mach 3.2 does it? In other words, it could still overfly and loiter for sometime, especially since - unlike a satellite - it could reverse direction...

Admittedly this might be at the expense of some margin in stealth, as well as a sacrifice in fuel efficiency...but while it probably wouldn't approach a 12 hour sortie, it could've still held its own, couldn't it?

LockheedMartin7 karma

JScott: The SR-71 was built to go fast. It could go slower but it cannot stay on-station with the persistence or fuel efficiencies of the U-2. The SR-71 would never slow down and orbit over the target area.

juanton_2 karma

I think I heard somewhere that the U-2's have yaw strings, and have always wondered if this was true. Are there?

LockheedMartin3 karma

Skid: It's true.

flarkey2 karma

How long does it take to plan a mission? Ie, is it meticulous planning over days? Or can you scramble and be up within minutes/hours to cover something urgent?

LockheedMartin8 karma

Coach: Some missions take days, weeks, months to plan. Some missions require a lot of coordination and take a long time, and aren’t planned by the pilots themselves. We have mission planners that help plan the missions in advance. Pilots have the ability to dynamically adjust missions mid-flight.

Burning_Monkey2 karma

How does it feel to be flying around in a plane that has a design well over 50 years old, and yet still manages to have an applicable mission today?

And to expand on a previous question, how do you keep magnets from sticking to those huge steel balls? :D

EDIT: Yeah, I misspelled plane, leave me alone...

LockheedMartin8 karma

JScott: The U-2 was completely redesigned in the 1980s to support the Cold War mission and be adaptable to changing threats. This adaptability is what has kept the U-2 relevant and allowed us to rapidly modernize it over the past 15 years with the latest technology. And, to your second question, the suit helps (LOL). We don't need to worry about ferro-magnetic effects.

PMme_your_helicopter2 karma

did you want to become a u2 pilot or did it just happen?

also, i want to become a USAF pilot in the future, i understand you have to have a degree to become one, how much does a engineering/aviation degree help vs a non engineering one help?

LockheedMartin7 karma

JScott: I heard about it after I was in the Air Force for 8 years. I thought it would be cool and applied. To answer your second question, when I went through ROTC, 60 to 70 percent of those accepted into the program had a technical degree. However, to get a pilot slot in ROTC you were competing against your peers regardless of your degree. In my class, we had 15 pilots selected out of 40 students.

jrosulli1 karma


LockheedMartin6 karma

Skid: The U-2 has a very long wingspan with span-wise fuel-loading; therefore, it has high-roll inertia.

ManoGalaxy1 karma

J. Scott, Coach, and Skid, thank you for doing an IAmA! -What is the future of the Dragon Lady? -What is the most unique memory you all individually experienced while flying the U-2? -How is it different to fly the Dragon Lady at 65,000ft compared to flying commercial airliners at 30,000ft? Thank you!

LockheedMartin9 karma

JScott: The airframe life enables us to fly beyond 2045. Emerging threats will eventually require low observable designs as a defensive measure. We see the U-2 flying until that next-generation platform emerges. Coach: The U-2 brings unmatched capabilities to the fight that have yet to be duplicated. Skid: I crashed one and survived. It's a robust platform. That tail number is still flying today.