U-2 Pilot Wearing High Altitude Pressure Suit Made Approaches with McLaren Chase Car.
While appearances of the Lockheed U-2 high-altitude reconnaissance aircraft have become more common at western U.S. airshows, it’s still a little unusual to see a Dragon Lady make a touch and go landing at an airshow. It’s even more unusual to see it done by a pilot wearing a high-altitude pressure suit and astronaut-type helmet, especially when the chase vehicles are exotic supercars like a McLaren 720S worth nearly 300,000 USD. During the Friday, September 23, 2022, air show at MCAS Miramar Airshow near San Diego, aviation enthusiasts got to see all three.
The fly-by demonstration from a USAF U-2 from the 9th Reconnaissance Wing at Beale AFB turned into a minor sensation when the aircraft made an unexpected touch n’ go landing. It became even more interesting when photographers with telephoto lenses looked at the playback of their photos and realized the pilot was wearing a full pressure suit.
Interestingly, according to the official program for the Miramar Air Show, the U-2 Fly-by was originally scheduled for 12:12 PM local time on Saturday, September 24. But as all air show fans know, the first casualty is always the flying schedule. So, the U-2 fly-by, which turned into an exotic sports car rally and U-2 landing demo, took place a day early.
During the unexpected touchdown the aircraft held both wingtips aloft for several seconds while being shadowed by a blue McLaren 720S driving at high speed, some claimed, “over 100 MPH”, along the runway. Keen-eyed observers noticed the pilot flying was wearing a full high-altitude pressure suit and helmet. Air show commentators Rob Reider and Matt Jolley told the crowd the aircraft had, “Descended from 60,000 feet” to make the series of approaches and eventual touch and go landing at the Miramar show.
Most commonly the pilot flying a U-2 demo at airshows is wearing standard flying gear, not the spacesuit-like high altitude pressure suit and helmet. The aircraft rarely touches down without a ground support team since it requires detachable “pogo” outrigger landing gear on each wing tip to prevent the wings from hitting the runway. During a U-2 arrival several years ago at the Aviation Nation Air & Space Expo at Nellis AFB, we photographed a U-2 pilot arrive for the show from Beale AFB dressed in normal flight gear, not a high-altitude pressure suit.
“We weren’t expecting to get a landing, so this was special,” one U.S. Marine observer at Miramar told TheAviationist.com. “I’ve seen the Dragon Lady a few times, but never like this” a photographer in the media area said after watching the demo flight.
The U-2 made three passes at the runway at Miramar, with one pass featuring the short touch and go. During each of the approaches the role of the landing chase vehicle was performed by a car from Precision Exotics, who was at the Miramar Air Show selling rides along the runway in its fleet of exotic supercars, including the McLaren 720S.
The high-altitude pressure suits used by U-2 flight crews are unique to the program. The suits are manufactured by the David Clark Company in Worcester, Massachusetts and are frequently referred to as, “David Clark suits” by support personnel and flight crews.
In a December 29, 2019 article for Military.com, reporter Oriana Pawlyk wrote that the David Clark suits are evolving with the development and implementation of new fabrics, including a more breathable Gore-Tex membrane lining to facilitate moisture management.
Pawlyk also acknowledged the role of the David Clark U-2 pressure suits in the development of newer space suits in civilian manned space flight, reporting that:
“As the custom-made, smart-tech flight suits continue to improve, there’s no shortage of cutting-edge ideas to keep U-2 pilots soaring, and engineers are using emerging technologies to add mobility and develop even sleeker pressurized suits for the next batch of NASA astronauts who are getting ready to head out into the final frontier.”