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Fueling the high flyers- How America’s high-flying aviators stay fueled

Staff Sgt. Suzzett Stalesky, 9th Physiological Support Squadron launch and recovery technician, demonstrates the use of tube food by inserting it into the feeding port of a U-2 full pressure suit helmet at Beale Air Force Base, Calif., Feb. 5, 2013. The U-2 is the only aircraft in the Department of Defense inventory that requires the utilization of a full pressure suit. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Drew Buchanan/Released)

Staff Sgt. Suzzett Stalesky, 9th Physiological Support Squadron launch and recovery technician, demonstrates the use of tube food by inserting it into the feeding port of a U-2 full pressure suit helmet at Beale Air Force Base, Calif., Feb. 5, 2013. The U-2 is the only aircraft in the Department of Defense inventory that requires the utilization of a full pressure suit. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Drew Buchanan/Released)

(U.S.Air Force graphic/Airman 1st Class Drew Buchanan)

(U.S.Air Force graphic/Airman 1st Class Drew Buchanan)

Tube food is manufactured by Natick Soldier Research, Development and Engineering Center in Natick, Mass. Many flavors of tube foods are made for Air Force U-2 pilots to keep aviators energized and nourished during high-altitude flights. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Drew Buchanan/Released)

Tube food is manufactured by Natick Soldier Research, Development and Engineering Center in Natick, Mass. Many flavors of tube foods are made for Air Force U-2 pilots to keep aviators energized and nourished during high-altitude flights. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Drew Buchanan/Released)

The highly-specialized helmets worn by U-2 pilots are similar to those worn by NASA astronauts. The helmets accommodate tube foods and hydration through a feeding port that keeps the helmet pressurized during flight. (U.S. Air Force photo by Mr. Robert Scott/Released)

The highly-specialized helmets worn by U-2 pilots are similar to those worn by NASA astronauts. The helmets accommodate tube foods and hydration through a feeding port that keeps the helmet pressurized during flight. (U.S. Air Force photo by Mr. Robert Scott/Released)

Dan Nattress and Deborah Haley of the Department of Defense Combat Feeding Directorate at Natick Soldier Research, Development and Engineering Center, use fresh ingredients to provide tube foods to high-flying U-2 pilots. (U.S. Army Courtesy Photo)

Dan Nattress and Deborah Haley of the Department of Defense Combat Feeding Directorate at Natick Soldier Research, Development and Engineering Center, use fresh ingredients to provide tube foods to high-flying U-2 pilots. (U.S. Army Courtesy Photo)

BEALE AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. -- Peach cobbler, chicken-a-la-king, key lime pie, or even the classic sloppy joe don't compare to a home cooked meal, but U-2 Dragon Lady pilots say the food they eat while flying long missions is delicious.

While wearing a fully pressurized suit, pilots aren't able to open the visors on their helmets and have limited range of motion to feed themselves while wearing their bulky yellow equipment. To overcome these challenges, America's highest flying aviators use a specialized method of eating -- Tube Food.

Similar to the size of a tube of toothpaste, these metallic containers are fitted with a plastic straw designed to slip through a sealed port on each pilot's helmet. The port does not to affect the pressure of the suit and is also used for hydration.

The tube meals come from an Army research laboratory in Natick, Mass. Expert chefs and nutritionists craft these meals which are then turned into a paste the consistency of baby food.

"We've been making these for years and years," said Dan Nattress, a food technologist with Combat Feeding. Combat Feeding has been supplying tube food to U-2 pilots for five decades and is constantly adding new flavors.

While technicians from the 9th Physiological Support Squadron assist pilots into their full pressure suits, they ask for their food preference.

"Depending on the duration of the flight, each pilot is different," said Staff Sgt. Suzzett Stalesky, 9th PSPTS suit technician. "It just depends on the pilot preference. Some pilots take the same thing every flight, and some newer ones are still trying to find what agrees with their body during a flight."

Stalesky said pilots usually eat one tube an hour. They can have the classics like beef stroganoff or applesauce, or more exciting options to give them a little "kick" like chocolate pudding with enough caffeine to satisfy any coffee addict.

"It's not like having a few cups of Starbuck coffee, but it's pretty close," said Maj. Laura, 99th RS pilot whose favorite flavor is pasta Bolognese.

So what is the favorite dish among the most seasoned U-2 pilots?

Stalesky said caffeinated chocolate pudding and chicken-a-la-king takes the cake.

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