Chasing a Spy Plane

The Cold War was a dark period in history when humanity came, for so many times, too close to total annihilation. When this “war” came to an end, in 1991, the danger of a nuclear Armageddon became a thing of the past and now we can, in a more relaxed way, look back at some of the amazing war machines that were created by the Americans and the Soviets during that time.

Some military airplanes were so well designed that even after over 60 years of entering service, they are still on active duty.

One of those planes is the mythological Lockheed U2, this spy plane was born with a very elementary mission, to fly over enemy territory at 70,000 ft (21,300 meters), out of the reach of any fighter jet or anti-aircraft missile at the time.

Lockheed Aircraft Corp. created a jet plane with a very simple design that looks more like a glider, narrow fuselage and 103 ft of wingspan. To save space and weight, the landing gear also looks like the one you will find in gliders, only two sets mounted in tandem, also known as “bicycle” gear.

To take off, a pair of smaller wheels are placed close to the tips of the wings, but as soon as the plane lifts off, those wheels are jettisoned.

The Dragon Lady, coming back from another flight to the edge of space.

The prototype flew in August 1955 and a year later it came into service, the pilots nicknamed it The Dragon Lady.

The U2 is an unforgiving plane to fly, the lack of assisted commands and the bicycle stile landing gear make the landing a very complicated process. The ideal procedure is to bring the plane very close to the ground, around 2 ft (0,60m) and then stall it, safely touching the tarmac. But there is a problem: the pilot can’t precisely know how close to the ground the plane is, and if he stalls the plane at a higher altitude than 2 ft, the landing gear might brake because it has no shock absorbers.

The plane was called the most difficult-to-land machine in the US Air Force inventory. After numerous accidents at the beginning of the active service, the U2 pilots came up with a very interesting solution: a team member would follow the approaching plane in a car, informing the pilot by radio how far off the ground the plane is, and that was how the U2 chase cars were born.

The Country Squire.

Since the Dragon Lady comes down to the runway at 140 Mph, the chasing car must have some muscles. The first choice was the 1956/57 Ford Station Wagons, called Country Squire, as seen in the picture above. The U2 program was highly classified, therefore, finding information about those cars can be a bit frustrating, but an exchange of emails between the retired US Air Force Major Tommy Douglas and the hot rod website The Jalopy Journal shed a light on the subject.

Let’s hear from the man himself:

I’m retired Major Tommy Douglas from the US Air Force. I’m also a car junkie and have been ever since I can remember. I’m emailing you because I thought you would find my history a little interesting given our shared passions.

In 1954, I participated in a car project for the Air Force. Myself and three or four others were given the task of finding and preparing a car to be used as a chase vehicle for the then top-secret U-2 spy plane. The U-2 was a complicated aircraft to land due to its huge wingspan and bicycle landing gear. Pilots don’t necessarily land the U-2. Instead, they fly it to about 2′ off the ground and then stall it. And they do this blindly, so spotters are needed at each wingtip to call altitude.

The two cars we procured were to hold these spotters and needed to be capable of speeds of up to 120mph – just under the approach speed of the U-2. They also had to have enough cargo room to hold the detachable pogo gears that go on the wingtips of the aircraft and allow for taxiing.

“At the time, the best vehicle for the job was a 1956 or ’57 Ford Station Wagon. It was anemic in stock form, but we were hot rod guys and took care of that easy enough.”

The McCoulloch supercharger

We had two wagons on base. The first was powered by a 312 with a McCulloch supercharger on it. I don’t remember exactly where we sourced that motor, but I think we took it out of a factory Fairlane provided by Ford. It was fast, but the driver’s timing with the U-2 pilot had to be perfect to get the spotter in an ideal position.

The second wagon had a supercharged Mercury engine in it. I believe that one came from a NASCAR shop in Florida, but I don’t have any specific memory of it. That car was really fast and gave the driver a little more cushion for error.

“I don’t recall doing anything to the brakes. We had a really long and wide “landing strip” at the time and the U-2 skidded down this strip for quite a ways, giving us plenty of time to slow down. Worse came to worse, we could just swing out wide and coast to a stop”.

“I do remember lots of “testing” on that runway with those cars. There might have been some shenanigans, but no pictures. The base we used had pretty tight security.”

(The Major’s account is part of the post “Chasing The U2″, published by The Jalopy Journal, April20, 2020.

N.E. – The 312 was the biggest displacement Ford “Y” block in 1956/57. The McCulloch supercharger was part of the Ford performance catalog and could be ordered and installed at any dealership. Since it was considered “OEM” part, the supercharger was allowed to be used in NASCAR.

El Camino.

 In the 1960s the Cold War was in full throttle, the U2 spy plane was being operated not only by the Air Force but also by the CIA. As the program saw a spike in the number of missions, the Ford wagons were replaced by a pair of Chevy El Caminos. They were just perfect for the mission, it performs like a muscle car and has a very spacious bed for all the U2 related junk.

Two 1968 El Caminos were ordered, powered by the 396 big-block V8, cranking up 325 hp, more than enough for the mission, but no AC. Some people will tell the cars were SS models, but it might not be the case, the SS came standard with Rally wheels and what we see in the photos looks more like a “plain Jane” big block El Camino.

The cars were painted the Air Force standard blue paint and later on, the roof was painted white in an attempt to divert some of the blazing Arizona sun (the first operational U2 base was Davis-Monthan AFB in Tucson, AZ), but that alone wasn’t enough to keep the El Camino crew from baking inside the diminutive cabin and an RV style roof AC unit added to them. When the U2 base was transferred to California, in the 1970s, they received a pair of new body style El Camino.

The Mustang

When the time to replace the El Caminos came, in the 1980s, the muscle-car scene was a lot different, the oil crisis of 1973 brought the segment to the brink of extinction.

The Air Force was once again looking for a cheap, high-performance car but the market in the 1980s offered far fewer options than in the 1960s. The answer came in 1985 when they borrowed a Ford Mustang from the California Highway Patrol for some tests. Of course, the car was not your average 5.0 Fox Body, it was an SSP (special service package), with all the good stuff you can find in a police cruiser car.

The Air Force loved it, the Mustang became the U2 chase car for the next decade, and more than 20 units were bought during that time, some of them were sent to bases in Europe and Asia.

This is the only surviving U2 chaser Mustang, a 1988 coupe. The car was bought by a collector and went through a complete restoration process.

The Mustangs were equipped with the legendary 5.0 litres V8 (302 CID) small-block, able to produce between 180 and 225 HP, depending on the year. It was less powerful than the El Camino but it handled a lot better. The lack of room in the Mustang trunk was a problem and the Air Force had to dispatch a pickup truck to get the “pogo” landing gear after each take-off.

Back to General Motors

Even after the end of the Cold War, the U2 operations didn’t stop. As missions advanced into the 1990s, the Mustang was replaced by the fourth-gen Camaro in B4C-specs (police cruiser specs).

During the early 2000s, the Camaros were replaced by Australian sourced Pontiac GTO/G8. For the U2 pilots, those Aussie Ponchos became one of the all-time favourite chase cars.

As the U2 operations became less and less “secret” after the years, videos and photos of the chase cars became abundant on the Internet. As we can see, the fifth and sixth-generation Camaro has been the primary choice for the mission but some Dodge Chargers can also be seen.

The future of the Dragon Lady.

In 2019 the US Air Force came under heavy fire after whistleblowers made public some details about a U2 mission: the team was to be deployed to RAF Mildenhall station, in Suffolk, England, for what seemed to be a routine mission if wasn’t for one little detail: by August 2019, the Air Force was getting ready to airlift two Dodge Charger chasers to Mildenhall Air Base. Assuming the transport would be performed by a C17 Globemaster, that little round trip would have cost the taxpayer the modest amount of US$ 380,000.00.

-“What? Don’t you think the Brits might have fast cars that could perform the chase duty?” -“Wouldn’t it be cheaper to buy 2 brand new Chargers over there and then simply abandon the cars once the mission was over? – “Since we are burning money, why not buy 2 F-type Jaguars? It would still be cheaper than shipping those damn Chargers!” Well, among the many questions the taxpayers might have, one is very pertinent: Why does the Air Force keep flying this ancient airplane when the satellite technology is so advanced? To its defense, the Air Force says the U2 can be redeployed to different missions faster than satellites can be rearranged.

Since the U2 cockpit is not pressurized, the pilot must wear a “spacesuit”.

As useful as the Dragon Lady still is, the government has been slowly phasing out the program. According to the Air Force, the reason is purely budgetary.

The RQ-4 Global Hawk

It might sound crazy to dress a pilot like an astronaut, shove him inside a cramped cockpit and send the guy on a 10-hour long mission, flying on the edge of space in a 1950s era airplane. The U2 was supposed to be replaced by the RQ-4 Global Hawk, a modern, high altitude surveillance drone, but even being 43 years older than the RQ-4, the U2 still can fly 10,000 ft higher than the drone.

Whatever the future of the Dragon Lady might be, the plane certainly is a very interesting chapter in the history of military aviation. The cars that performed the chasing duty throughout the U2 career represent the birth, the peak, the near death, and the resurrection of the Muscle Car movement.

It is only natural for whoever likes speed and the sound of engines, to have an interest not only in cars but airplanes as well, as a friend of mine used to say: “Why do we like cars so much? Just because it is too expensive to have a jet fighter in the garage“.

A NASA-operated U2, followed by its Charger chase car.

As for the U2 spy plane, it is nothing short of amazing how the program brought together planes and cars, interacting with each other so harmoniously.

Published by Rubens Junior

Passionate about classic cars, motorcycles, airplanes, and watches.

2 thoughts on “Chasing a Spy Plane

  1. That article has everything! Cool aircraft, several generations of hot rods – with and without superchargers, drones, and money wasting by the military. It’s hard to believe that today they can’t get a drone that outperforms the U2.

    Liked by 1 person

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