Dragons at RAF Fairford 2003

In the last few years
America’s all black glider-like U-2s have become fairly common
visitors to RAF Fairford although the dark cloud of mystery that
surrounds them often means little gets said about them when they’re
here. Usually we’ll post a few photos of each visitor to the web
site and ‘acknowledge’ them on the Operations Board to prevent
rumours but everything else we leave to the reader’s imagination.
However now we bring a special article that explains some of what
the U-2 does at Fairford and what makes this unusual aircraft
different to anything else that visits the base.










What Does RAF Fairford Do?

RAF Fairford is known to U-2 crews as an En-route Stop. Sometimes
when the aircraft have to move between their operating bases
positioned around the world the distance between the start and
finish can be too long to travel in one flight, either the pilot
would get too tired to land or the aircraft would run out of fuel.
When this happens they’ll break the transit journey up and stopover
somewhere along the route, in this case RAF Fairford. This gives the
aircraft the chance to pick up more fuel and a rested pilot before
continuing to the final destination. This is nothing unusual,
bombers, fighters, airlift and tanker aircraft do it all the time
but what makes the U-2 special is the amount of ground support the
aircraft’s unique capabilities mean it requires.


Why RAF Fairford?

Selecting a base for a U-2 stopover is no simple task. The wide
turning circles the aircraft has when taxiing means anywhere with a
narrow runway or taxiways is out already. The aircraft has its own
fuel that’s designed to be ‘thermally stable’ at high altitudes,
that has to be available. Security requirements mean the base must
have a hangar big enough to park the wide winged aircraft in, the
pilots must have room to have people put on their bulky space suit
for them and then pre-breath oxygen and much more. The unusual
physiological stresses high altitude flight places on the human body
also mean that specialist medical facilities must be close to the

In the mid-1990s RAF Fairford was home to OL-UK, the European U-2
operation. It’s because that operation went smoothly that flight
planners today confidently use Fairford as a stop-over base. They
know the base’s airfield can physically handle the aircraft, they
know it has the logistical support needed for their flights and they
know they’ll get good service from the people on base. Some of these
requirements make a typical busy American air base unsuitable for
U-2 operations while Fairford is perfect.


What Happens?

There’s no regular pattern or programme that determines when a U-2
will come to Fairford but when the transit mission plan is started a
little over 20 ground support personnel will fly to the UK then
travel to the base. They’ll include pilots, a flight doctor and
flight ops officers and the airframe technicians, the physiological
staff and maintenance people. Arriving a couple of days before the
aircraft is due they’ll unpack the ground equipment shipped in for
them, prepare the space suit for the pilot who’ll fly the aircraft
out and start checking the weather forecasts. Weather is a big
concern for the flights as the aircraft is a lot more sensitive to
strong gusts and cross winds than normal aircraft. There’s no
official divert base for the aircraft when it comes to Fairford, any
decision to stop the aircraft coming after take off would either
mean it returning to base or a fast drive to get the ground support
team to the new landing airfield. This is very rare and usually
flights go as planned.



When flying up high the pilots need protection against the
potentially fatal surroundings at the edge of space. To protect them
they wear space suits, bright yellow bulky pressure suits which can
inflate in an emergency to protect them against depressurization.
The pilots need a team of specialists to help them put on the Dave
Clarke suits and then prepare their bodies medically for high
altitude flight. Costing $180,000 each and tailor made for every
pilot the suits need to be handled carefully and pilots mustn’t walk
any further than they have to so vehicles must be on standby to
ferry them around. After having a high protein breakfast the pilots
will suit up then pre-breath pure oxygen for an hour before flight
which removes the nitrogen in their blood.

To keep the pilot nourished during their flight they carry bottles
of fluids to drink and tubes of processed food. The food tubes and
bottles have long drinking straw like tubes on them which can be
pushed through a valve in the suit’s helmet.



Being sat in a space suit in high cockpit position means the pilots
can rarely see around or beneath their aircraft. To allow them to
land safely a chase car known as the Mobile is used. The car driven
by a qualified U-2 pilot will drive along side the aircraft down the
runway as it approaches touchdown and call out the height remaining
over the radio. Rental cars are used for this job when they’re at
Fairford, the only lease requirements being that they can carry four
men and a radio, have automatic transmission and can reach 130+ mph
so they can catch up with the aircraft. At more permanent U-2 bases
dedicated Chevy Cameros are used.



What Do The Crews Think Of Fairford?

The simple answer is they love it, they love coming to Fairford and
seeing England. There’s always time for them to take trips to
London, Swindon, Stonehenge and the pubs local to the base. Crews
used comments like ‘They take care of us here and make sure we get
what we need to do our job’, ‘People always want to come here’ and
of course ‘Being here means I’m not somewhere bad!’

Many thanks to everyone at RAF Fairford and the visitors
from Beale AFB who made this article possible.




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