Meet the First Civilian U‑2 Pilot Trainer to Fly the Legendary Spy Plane Solo

 In Air, Forces & Capabilities
  • Retired US Air Force Lt. Col. Jonathan Huggins became the first civil­ian instruc­tor to fly the U‑2 solo on July 31.
  • Huggins is one of sev­er­al civil­ian instruc­tors who train pilots to fly the vaunt­ed U‑2, which has been lurk­ing all over the world for 60 years.
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History was made July 31, 2020, when US 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.

Huggins retired on September 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.

Air Force U-2 spy plane pilot

Huggins prepares to taxi a U-2 before takeoff at Beale Air Force Base, July 31, 2020.
US Air Force/Airman 1st Class Luis A. Ruiz-Vazquez

“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.”

The U‑2 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.”

Air Force U-2 spy plane

Huggins prepares to land a U-2 at Beale Air Force Base, July 31, 2020.
US Air Force/Airman 1st Class Luis A. Ruiz-Vazquez

Civilian U‑2 instruc­tor pilots don an orange flight suit, sym­bol­ic to the his­to­ry of U‑2 pilots.

“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 US 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 very sat­is­fy­ing.”

Air Force U-2 spy plane chase car

Maj. Nathanael Tolle, 1st Reconnaissance Squadron U-2 pilot, assists a landing U-2 pilot from a chase car at Beale Air Force Base, July 31, 2020.
US Air Force/Airman 1st Class Luis A. Ruiz-Vazquez

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.”

Business Insider: Defense source|articles

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