Sports car chases down an Air Force aircraft on runway


He grips the steering wheel with one hand in anticipation, as if sitting at the starting line of a drag race.

In the opposite hand, he clutches a radio that suddenly squawks to life. Out of nowhere, an odd-looking aircraft streaks past the windshield of his all white muscle car.

He punches the gas.

Bright flashing lights beam from the roof of his car as he launches like a rocket from the edge of the open tarmac reaching nearly 100 mph in mere seconds.
While this may sound like a scene from the latest installment of the “Fast and Furious” movie series, it’s not.

The driver of the hot rod is Maj. Jack, a U-2 pilot assigned to the 9th Reconnaissance Wing at Beale Air Force Base, California. Jack is pursuing a landing U-2S reconnaissance plane.

A mild, but noticeable, smell of burning rubber is evident as he puts the car through its paces to catch up the inbound plane.

As he races up behind the aircraft, he lifts the radio to his face to communicate with the pilot in the aircraft just above the ground.

“The design of the U-2 makes it a hard aircraft to land,” Jack said.

Most planes have a standard tricycle landing gear configuration, which means the aircraft remains stable and upright when stationary. But the U-2’s landing gear is in a bicycle configuration, one wheel behind the other, making landing and taxiing the plane a balancing act.

Once on the ground, aircrew members attach pogo wheels, which are comparable to training wheels, under each wing so the plane stays balanced as it taxies. Those same wheels are designed to automatically detach and fall onto the runway during takeoff. One of the big reasons the U-2 is designed this way is to save weight allowing it to easily reach extremely high altitudes.

To ensure a safe and accurate landing, Jack operates as a ground-based wingman in a chase car, communicating with the pilot in the cockpit of the plane. Jack lets the pilot know how many feet he is from the ground and which way to direct the aircraft’s rudder.

Moments later, the U-2 touches down and taxies to a stop. It’s another successful landing after descending from 70,000 feet to execute a high-altitude reconnaissance mission.

“There’s not many jobs where you get to drive a race car and fly airplanes all in the same day,” Jack said, grinning.

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This is a portion of a story by Staff Sgt. Kenny Holston that originally appeared in Airman Magazine in 2016

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