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Palmdale detachment takes testing to new heights

Col. Chris Cook, 412th Operations Group commander, gets a sweeping view of California from 71,000 feet during a recent flight in a U-2.  (Photo by Col. Chris Cook)

Col. Chris Cook, 412th Operations Group commander, gets a sweeping view of California from 71,000 feet during a recent flight in a U-2. (Photo by Col. Chris Cook)

A two-seat U-2, one of five in the Air Force fleet, sits ready for a proficiency flight at Air Force Plant 42 in Palmdale, Calif.  (Photo by Tech. Sgt. Jeff Meyer)

A two-seat U-2, one of five in the Air Force fleet, sits ready for a proficiency flight at Air Force Plant 42 in Palmdale, Calif. (Photo by Tech. Sgt. Jeff Meyer)

EDWARDS AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. -- Edwards Air Force Base has a long history of testing cutting-edge weapons systems for the Air Force. A little-known detachment at Air Force Plant 42 in Palmdale, Calif., is no exception, but the aircraft tested there are not as well-known as the newest Air Force assets.

Warner Robins Air Logistics Center, Detachment 2, is responsible for the depot-level maintenance, repair and developmental test and evaluation of the U-2 Dragon Lady.

While the detachment reports directly to Warner Robins ALC in Georgia, its flight operations fall under the command of Col. Chris Cook, 412th Operations Group Commander here.

Lt. Col. Tim Williams, Det. 2 commander, said his unit does periodic depot maintenance on about five aircraft per year, primarily from Beale Air Force Base in Northern California.

"Each aircraft goes through several months of major modifications, during which it's subjected to a rigorous quality assurance process," Colonel Williams said. "Once the maintenance is complete, we do a series of acceptance flights, then the U-2 returns to the warfighters at Beale AFB."

Colonel Cook said that the depot maintenance also offers a great opportunity for developmental testing, since the airplane is almost completely disassembled.

"On a reconnaissance aircraft much of the development work is in sensors," Colonel Cook said. "If you're going to put a new sensor aboard and need to rewire or install new avionics -- or modify the aircraft in some way -- depot maintenance is the perfect time to do it."

The U-2 is traditionally known for flying at high altitudes (often more than 70,000 feet), and Colonel Cook recently had an opportunity to experience this unique mission.

"The reason I had the opportunity to fly in the U-2 is because (Gen. Greg Martin, former Air Force Materiel Command commander) brought all the flying operations under Ops Group commanders, which is basically the model the rest of the Air Force uses," Colonel Cook said. "In that decision, the detachment was brought under my operational control for flying operations. I am responsible for the safe conduct of flying and there's no better way of learning about a flying operation than going and doing it," he said.

Additionally, the opportunity arose because the depot had just rolled out a two-seat bird -- there are only five in the Air Force inventory -- and the detachment had been given some flying hours for proficiency and "qual" flights.

"Colonel Williams called and offered me a high-altitude flight," Colonel Cook said. "What an opportunity! I immediately said yes!"

Before he could fly in the U-2, Colonel Cook had to complete a couple of days of training and certification at Beale AFB.

"In order to fly above 50,000 feet, you have to be full-pressure suit qualified," Colonel Cook said. "The altitude chamber ride takes you to 100,000 feet, which is past the altitude where water boils due to the low atmospheric pressure. Without a pressure suit, your blood would also boil, making it quite impossible to survive without the suit."

During his flight, Colonel Cook got to experience several things that are unique to the U-2 mission.

"We basically left Palmdale and flew in our restricted airspace climbing north towards Mount Whitney," Colonel Cook said. "We climbed to over 71,250 feet, and it took us a little over 40 minutes to get there. The earth has a definite curve at that altitude. You can also see for miles -- literally hundreds of miles. We were flying over the (Sierra Nevada mountain range), and I had to get used to the fact that I could see the ocean as the coastline was clearly visible. If you really strained you could also see Phoenix from where we were. It was quite a sight to behold."

He also got to experience eating and drinking at high altitude.

"A U-2 pilot has to fly long endurance missions, so you have to bring your liquids and your lunch with you," he said. "However, once you're above 29,000 feet, your faceplate is closed on your helmet, and there's no way to open your faceplate and eat a sandwich. So they have tube foods and water bottles with long straws that you poke through a hole in your helmet. I was only on a two-hour flight, so I didn't really need to eat or drink, but I had to try, just to see how easy it is to do that. So at 70,000 feet, I did, in fact, have a little applesauce and tried some Gatorade."

Colonel Cook said that another benefit of riding in the U-2 was that he gained insight into high-altitude flight operations.

"The high-fliers, like the U-2 and the Global Hawk, have challenged us to examine how we manage and design our airspace to meet the needs of these upcoming technologies," he said. "To prepare us for the future, this experience gave me a little glimpse into high-altitude operations so I have a better understanding of what it takes to operate up there, how we operate up there and how the airspace needs to be put together so we can operate safely and effectively."

Colonel Cook said it was an honor to fly in the U-2, and he dedicated his flight to the hundreds of professional maintainers, life support technicians, engineers, contractors and administrators who have supported the U-2 during its long and successful career.

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