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CARE modifications place pilots at better elevation

  • Published
  • By Senior Airman Shawn Nickel
  • 9th Reconnaissance Wing Public Affairs
While mechanics from Lockheed Martin upgrade the cockpit structure of the U-2 intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance aircraft, it looks like a pile of parts at the local junk yard. However, the modifications allow the aircraft to fly just as true as before while improving pilot safety and comfort.

In the mean time, the thin black aluminum panels, which give the high-flying Dragon Lady its signature sinister look, sit on the ground while miles of wires and cables, along with unpainted metal are exposed for mechanics to "beef up" during a Cockpit Altitude Reduction Effort modification.

"What we're doing is beefing up the structure and pressure equipment including the rings that produce the unique shape and contour," said James Barnes, Lockheed Martin field representative in charge of CARE. "The bulkhead is the main location for this. These aircraft are very thin skinned for weight saving, so specific areas can only be changed."

The upgrades will almost double the cabin pressure from 3.88 to 7.65 pounds per square inch. For Airmen who fly the U-2, the highest flying aviators in America at 70,000 feet, this will reduce the strain on their bodies as well as reduce the chance for decompression sickness.

U-2 pilots have to wear a full pressure suit to protect them in the event of ejection at high altitudes. However, the suit also helps regulate their body from cabin pressure which can be equivalent to being at 29,000 feet.

"That is like being on the top of Mt. Everest for hours on end," said Capt. Joseph, 1st Reconnaissance Squadron instructor pilot, who has more than 1,150 hours in the U-2. "I have been in aircraft with the new cockpit and it brings the pressure down to about 15,000 feet."

From beginning to end, the retrofit takes less than 23 days. The structural maintenance technicians from the 9th Maintenance Squadron here take care of the initial tear down in three days of phase maintenance, and then Lockheed takes over.

"Engineering and precision is key to the function and success here," Barnes said. "Every hole has to be the right size, gaps in metal are meticulously measured; everything has to be precise."

The mechanics say precise may be an understatement. When fitting the aluminum skin plates together, placing rivets and ensuring the structural integrity, cuts have to be made and holes have to be drilled within a 30,000th of an inch.

With a tight schedule to keep, Barnes' crews work 20 hours a day, six days a week. He said challenges arise but won't stand in the way of completing this important work.

"Our biggest challenge is finding unexpected parts that need to be fixed," he said. "The most common part this happens to is the metal skins right under the pilot's feet."

Barnes said liquid from the urine collection device used during long high flights can leak and corrode the plane from the inside out. These parts have to be retrofitted from scratch to match the original specifications.

"To me, these challenges don't matter when it comes to pilot safety,' he said. "You have to adapt, make sure you have the right supplies and overcome each obstacle."

U-2 squadron commanders are also confident the change will mitigate a longstanding problem called decompression sickness.

"This modification promises to mitigate our past problems with DCS and prevents us from losing qualified U-2 aviators who have in the past been restricted from high altitude flight due to DCS hits," said Lt. Col. Stephen Rodriguez, 1st RS commander.