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Flying the U-2

The U-2 is a difficult airplane to fly. With its long wings, light construction, and unusual landing gear, the Dragon Lady has always been a challenge even for the best pilots. As a result, there have been several accidents and fatalities over the years.

When flying at high altitude, early U-2s had to maintain a very specific speed--about 460 mph true airspeed--to stay in the thin margin between stalling and high-speed buffeting. The difference was only about 7 mph, and pilots called this margin the "coffin corner." High altitude engine flame-outs also were troublesome in early U-2s. Later models with better engines eased this problem.

The U-2's wings give it great soaring ability, but also make it hard to land. As the plane nears the ground, a cushion of air tends to keep the plane airborne. Typically, pilots are fatigued after long hours of flying in a pressure suit, and they find landing the U-2 a challenge. To make landing easier, a chase car follows the U-2 down the runway, and a pilot riding in the car radios the plane's altitude in the last few feet. As the plane slows, the pilot works to keep it level and straight until it falls off to one side on its bicycle landing gear. Ground crew then race to insert wheeled "pogo" supports in the wings, and the U-2 can taxi to a hangar.

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