The Transylvania Times -

By Robbie Robertson
Sports Editor 

U-2 Pilot Recounts Time In Top-Secret Plane – Brevard NC


Designed with an 80 (and later 100) foot wingspan, the U-2 could sustain flight at up to 70,000 feet, something only one other aircraft could do (the SR-71 'Blackbird).(Photos Courtesy Duke Woodhull)

Silent - practically invisible at 60,000 feet - - the U-2 "spy plane" perhaps more than anything else symbolizes the Cold War.

Designed to fly in the upper reaches of the atmosphere and highly classified to this day, the U-2 is flown by a small fraternity of pilots many still sworn to secrecy about the specifics of the plane and their missions over foreign countries (enemy and friend alike).

USAF pilot Richard "Duke" Woodhull, who now lives in Brevard, flew the U-2 in the aircraft's infancy, then went on to a long career in the senior leadership positions overseas and at home, and has written about both in a memoir entitled "Flying High: A Memoir of a 30-Year Adventure."

Flying The U-2 And Its 'Coffin Corner'

Nearly everything that makes the U-2 special as an airplane makes it nerve-wracking to fly.

"It was an unforgiving, difficult airplane to fly," Woodhull said. "At the same time I would have to say it was one of the most exhilarating and satisfying flying experiences that any pilot can have, because you are completely on your own at extreme altitude."

In the 1960s, when Woodhull began flying the plane, it still had the original 80-foot wingspan. Every-thing from the airframe to the wings was designed to be as light as possible, to help sustain flights in the rarefied air above 70,000 feet.

The fragility of the airplane and the difficulties of flying in the rarefied atmosphere made each mission a harrowing experience.

Woodhull's first five initial qualification trainings (named IQ 1-5) were done at low altitude and in regular flight gear. Landing the airplane was especially challenging, so a chase vehicle was driven on the runway by another U-2 pilot to radio the plane's altitude back to the pilot.

But on Woodhull's sixth training flight, he went to 60,000 feet for the first time, wearing a pressure suit to protect against the effects of hypoxia (oxygen deprivation).

But the real danger was the "coffin corner." At maximum altitude each pilot had but a 5-knot window of speed to maintain. Too fast and the wings may shear off; too slow and the plane may tumble into a stall.

"You could never relax," Woodhull said. "You had to fly that airplane precisely at all times. At maximum altitude you had to cope with the coffin corner."

On the sixth training flights, pilots were also required to shut the engine down, to experience depressurization. The flight suit would then automatically spring into action, squeezing the pilot's body to prevent nitrogen from coming out of solution in the bloodstream leading to 'the bends,'

"It partial pressurization suit in use at the time was really just a 'get-me-down' suit," Woodhull said. "The suit would keep you alive but you would have to descend.

"We would pre-breathe 100 percent oxygen for a couple hours before take-off and we were on 100 percent oxygen throughout the trip."

Woodhull would prove his mettle as a pilot on his seventh U-2 flight when the engine flamed out two hours into the mission.

"At that time I had a grand total of 15 hours in the airplane," Woodhull said. "And I'd only been to altitude once prior."

Woodhull was able to glide the plane 122 horizontal miles back to an emergency civilian field and land the plane safely.

"It was a hairy experience, but it all worked out okay. I got the airplane on the ground. The weather was bad, but I was lucky enough to see enough of the runway early enough, and despite a crosswind it worked out fine."

Take-offs and landings were always vexing affairs under normal circumstances, as the delicate wings were supported by "pogos" on take-off but were unsupported on landing and could drag on the tarmac.

The pogos were wheels on poles that supported the wings until takeoff speed was achieved. Then they were designed to fall free.

If a pogo jammed into place and did not fall free, the mission would be scrubbed, Woodhull said.

Gary Powers, the U-2 pilot shot down over the Soviet Union in 1960, wrote Woodhull a note exclaiming his amazement that his fellow pilot was able to make it back in one piece from the flame-out.

Aerial Sampling And Photography

Woodhull's first associations with the U-2 were for an operation called "Crow Flight, collecting radioactive debris in the upper atmosphere from Russian and Chinese nuclear detonations. By analyzing the air samples, scientists could deduce the yield of the bombs and their composition. Nearly all of his years flying in the U-2, however, involved aerial photography.

Shortly after his return from an operating location in Argentina in 1969, the Air Force introduced the U-2R model with a 100-foot wingspan, enlarged cockpit and upgraded instruments and flying capability. Woodhull checked out on that one as well.

The U-2's most famous (or infamous) use was for aerial reconnaissance. Missions were flown over the Soviet Union with some regularity and the plane proved key in spying on Cuba during the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Woodhull did not participate in any of those missions, but flew recon over Viet Nam with a formidable array of photography equipment.

The cameras on a U-2 could pick up a coffee cup on a table from 70,000 feet up, Woodhull said.

Eventually, Woodhull worked his way through the ranks to become the commander in charge of all U-2 operations outside the U.S.

A Life Of Luck

Woodhull, a Miami native, began his Air Force career as a pilot with certification in four-engine transports and later as a jet tanker pilot and flying with a U-2 support unit.

None of that especially qualified him for life as a spy plane operator, but a series of chance encounters and fortuitous circumstances set him on the course.

First, he was relocated to Texas and sent back to school - the Air Force Institute of Technology (AFIT).

Before starting classes, however, he learned of Jet Qualification School just 60 miles away in San Antonio, but it was designed for Majors, Lieutenant Colonels and Colonels and Woodhull was just a 1st Lieutenant.

"Miraculously," said Woodhull, "because I knew somebody from the U-2 wing, I got a quota to attend that six-week course, and became jet-qualified before I went to school (AFIT)," Woodhull said.

"And because he knew somebody from the U-2 wing, I got a quota to attend this six-week course, and became jet-qualified before I went to school (AFIT)," Woodhull said.

Foreign Service

Woodhull served his final years in the USAF as an attache where he had the mission of collecting "human intelligence."

"I wrote the equivalent of the Great American Novel while over there," Woodhull said.

His expertise in human nature and networking allowed him to identify a would-be assassin in the Philippine Air Force, one of 14 conspirators in the assassination of Philippine senator Benigno Aquino.

Aquino's wife, Corazon, would later become the first female president of the Philippines.

Woodhull was twice nearly removed from the country, once for failing to inform the host officials of travels while gathering intelligence, and another time for making an unofficial visit to some disputed territory in the South China Sea.

Duke Woodhull took this 'selfie' decades before the term was coined. This one was taken at high altitude in the cramped cockpit of a U-2 using a film camera.

In the first instance, Woodhull investigated an atrocity committed by Philippine state police against innocent villagers in northern Luzon..

The second instance, an unauthorized visit to the Spratly Islands (claimed by China, the Philippines, Viet Nam and other countries) caused serious but temporary concerns.

In both cases, Woodhull's intelligence reporting made up for the lapses in protocol and his famous luck held.

"My life has been one long series of fortuitous circumstances and good luck," Woodhull added. "Every time I turn around I get a piece of good luck. Living in Brevard is a perfect example."

Copies of Woodhull's memoirs are available at Highland Books and the Transylvania Public Library.


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