Training Nation's Future U-2 Pilots
by U.S. Air Force Airman 1st Class Luis A. Ruiz-Vazquez
History was made July 31, 2020, when U.S. Air Force retired Lt.
Col. Jonathan Huggins, 1st Reconnaissance Squadron U-2 instructor,
became the first civilian instructor in the U-2 program to fly solo.
A U-2 Dragon Lady piloted by retired Lt. Col. Jonathan Huggins, 1st Reconnaissance Squadron U-2 instructor pilot, prepares for landing
on July 31, 2020 at Beale Air Force Base, California. The bicycle-type landing gear and low-altitude handling characteristics of the U-2 require precise control inputs during landing. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Luis A. Ruiz-Vazquez)
Huggins retired on Sep. 26, 2014 and has served as a U-2 pilot
instructor for 15 of the 18 years he’s been flying the U-2 as an
active duty pilot.
Currently, Huggins is working with two
other civilian U-2 instructors. Together they have over 7,000 hours
of U-2 flight time and over 45 years in the U-2 program. They use
their experience to train the nation’s next fleet of U-2 pilots.
“As a civilian instructor pilot, I’m focused on working with the
newest U-2 trainees, and getting them proficient at the basics of
flying the U-2,” Huggins said. “That includes a lot of briefings
where we will talk about ‘techniques’ and things you learn after
flying the U-2 for a long time, but that aren’t necessarily found
written anywhere. It’s ‘the early building blocks’ I’m working on…
but in the U-2, that can be pretty challenging.”
Dragon Lady is widely accepted as the most difficult aircraft in the
world to fly. The bicycle-type landing gear and low-altitude
handling characteristics of the U-2 require precise control inputs
during landing. Additionally, pilots have limited forward visibility
due to the extended aircraft nose combined with the slight upward
tilt of the aircraft. Only about 16 new pilots come into the U-2
program each year.
“It’s different for everyone,” Huggins
said. “I’ve flown with applicants that hated flying the U-2 and
opted to stop the interview process because they had no desire to do
it again after their interview flight. It’s an extremely physical
aircraft to fly, and it takes quite a while to get to the point
where you feel like you’re flying it well.”
instructor pilots don an orange flight suit, symbolic to the history
of U-2 pilots.
Retired Lt. Col Jonathan Huggins, 1st Reconnaissance Squadron U-2 instructor pilot, performs a preflight inspection before takeoff
on July 31, 2020, at Beale Air Force Base, California. Huggins retired on Sep. 26, 2014 and has served as a U-2 pilot instructor for 15 of the 18 years he’s been flying the U-2 as an active duty pilot. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Luis A. Ruiz-Vazquez)
“Up until the mid-1980s, the U-2 pilots at Beale wore orange
flight suits,” Huggins said. “As there is a lot of history and
esprit de corps in the U-2 community, the 1st Reconnaissance
Squadron commander was interested in bringing back the heritage of
the orange bags. He ran it up the flagpole, and the upper echelon of
leadership supported the idea.”
Since the U-2’s first flight
on August 1, 1955, it continues to provide high-altitude,
all-weather surveillance and reconnaissance in direct support of
U.S. national objectives.
“I won’t get to fly it
again on classified missions, but being able to take all of the
lessons that I’ve learned over almost three decades of flying as a
military pilot, and being able to teach those lessons and techniques
to the new U-2 pilots that want to work so hard and succeed… that is
The invaluable lessons and experiences
shared by civilian U-2 instructor pilots helps better prepare future
U-2 pilots, ensuring mission success.
"It’s been 2,133 days
since I last flew the U-2 solo,” said Huggins. “I missed it. The
fact I’m getting to come work here again, with the people I love to
work with, in a jet and mission I love to be involved with… well,
it’s just a dream come true.”
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