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The Lady Endures

2nd Lt. Kidron Vestal, 380th Air Expeditionary Wing

Staff Sgt. Austin P. Dibenedetto, 380th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron, gears-up for the U-2's departure, Oct. 18. 2nd Lt. Kidron Vestal

The Lady Endures - 10.21.2009

The year was 1968.

The Tet Offensive began in Vietnam. Simon & Garfunkel premiered the soundtrack to The Graduate. Martin Luther King 'had a dream.'

The U.S. Air Force had a vision. The plane known as the U-2 Dragon Lady, Aircraft No. 068-0337, came on board to offer strategic, aerial capabilities equal to none. It exceeded its 25,000th hour of flight, Oct. 18, in a mission out of the 380th Air Expeditionary Wing, Southwest Asia.

America's premier, high-altitude intelligence, reconnaissance, and surveillance plane is the second U-2 to reach this milestone. Aircraft No. 068-0329 clocked a quarter of 100,000 hours, April 4, also of the 380th AEW. These two are the first of 33 U-2 airframes worldwide to achieve this feat.

The plane, with a wingspan of 105 feet, is maintained by military members and civilian contractors. Many elements come together on this piece of equipment, manufactured by Lockheed Martin.

Superintendents help oversee the maintenance operations of their dedicated crew chiefs, and assistant dedicated crew chiefs, who care for the plane as though she were their own.

"Every day, they come to work knowing they are responsible for the most critical high-altitude intelligence asset in the world, and they are dedicated to ensuring every mission is delivered on time and ready for the fight," said Capt. Vaughan Whited, 380th Expeditionary Aircraft Maintenance Squadron officer-in-charge.

This celebrated plane has overcome much in its 41 years. Over the course of Aircraft No. 0337's life, it has bellied in three times, each requiring a major overhaul.

Capt. Whited said, "The technicians and contractors continue to synergize their best maintenance practices in order to ensure she keeps flying strong."

The plane's design is accommodating for the ISR mission, not necessarily for an ease in maintenance. This makes No. 0337's achievement even more remarkable.

Tech. Sgt. Dave Wright, 380th Expeditionary Aircraft Maintenance Squadron expeditor, says the airframe is more labor-intensive than others, given its age and the changes in technology over time. When designed, some things were not considered, he said.

"Most aircraft have access panels and a hydraulic system that is easily accessible. The U-2 does not," said Sgt. Wright. While this might appear as a blunder, there may be a good explanation.

Col. Ricky R. Murphy, 380th Expeditionary Maintenance Group commander, said, "The U-2 is unique in that to maximize combat capability, there's no redundancy in the primary systems on the aircraft...as to minimize weight and maximize loiter time over the area of operations."

There are various platforms of ISR systems, with cameras that capture the broadest, most in-depth imagery of anything out there, said Capt. Whited.

Because of their maintenance, the systems are, "Consistently reliable every time," said Col. Murphy.

Ten thousand five-hundred feet of Kodak film is used on the weapon system, in addition to digital and satellite documentation. Artistry for this airframe is not limited to such imagery, however.

Staff Sgt.'s Jason A. Ortiz and Michael L. McVey, 380th Expeditionary Aircraft Maintenance Squadron, sketched with chalk symbolic designs on the airframe, prior to the flight.

Consistency was a highlight of the day, echoed by Chief Master Sgt.'s William K. Renner and David E. McGuigan, 380th Expeditionary Maintenance Squadron (Chief McGuigan, Group).

"Looking at it long-term shows you how you have consistent maintenance practices over time," said both gentlemen near-simultaneously. Four decades of 'getting it right' led us to Oct. 18.

Success did not come by accident. Every factor for attention is considered, even for the operator.

Given the aerial elements that the pilot will face at 70,000 feet, Lt. Col. Robert B. Wehner, 380th Expeditionary Reconnaissance Squadron, received pure oxygen for one whole hour prior to flight. Thus, his pre-flight inspection was executed by another pilot, as is the practice for every U-2 mission.

"There is a huge amount of trust there for a pilot, between the maintainers and other pilots," said Capt. Whited.

Even with the layered workload, he continued, "Many have said the U-2 is the most demanding and rewarding aircraft anyone could fly."

The Dragon Lady was once assigned to the CIA, and flew special operations worldwide. After a reassignment to the Air Force, the U-2 was present for every major allied contingency to date. She is used for diverse missions as well, including the mapping of wildfires in California and providing oversight to the Counter Drug War in Panama years back.

Over the years, the wingspan grew, the cockpit was upgraded, and the engine became more fuel-efficient. Other than that, the plane is the same as it was when embraced by the Air Force.

For the pilot who flew the Dragon Lady into its honored status, Colonel Wehner said, "If that airplane feels as good as I do, I guess that's a good thing for both being 41 years old."

The men and women of the 380th Air Expeditionary Wing support Operation Iraqi Freedom, Operation Enduring Freedom, and Combined Joint Task Force Horn of Africa.

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