Commenting login:
  • Log-in Edit profile
  • Register Logout
Bernie Ziebart

The Engineering Perspective

The blog is a view of life, science, politics and education from an engineering perspective. As engineers, we are taught to view the world objectively. We can hope, believe and calculate a particular outcome, but natural laws are inflexible and pay no heed to who we are or what we believe. We must approach the objective dispassionately, while compensating for our own distorted perceptions. Balance is also a key element; balancing between the ideal and the pragmatic, balancing cost and functionality, balancing analysis with action, etc.

Scheduling routine critical self-analysis is the foundation to objectivity. If we do not fully understand and compensate for our own failures, tendencies, habits and skewed thought processes, we will not see the world as it is. Without a regular critical self-analysis we will see the world as we are and then fall prey to self-delusion.

Failure is a great teacher. When failure is coupled with perseverance, it produces the fruit of patience and humility. An engineer, fresh out of engineering school is typically set up for failure early and often. The failure breaks the new engineer of any ideas of self-importance, arrogance and book smarts. Only then can the new engineer be formed and molded into a productive element in the industry.


U-2 Spy plane

The U-2 spy plane became famous after the Soviet Union shot down a U-2 piloted by Francis Gary Powers on May 1, 1960. The spy plane was first designed during the Eisenhower administration to breach the iron curtain and, as engineers said, snap "picture postcards for Ike" of hidden military strongholds in the Soviet Union.

Believe it or not, the U-2 is still the pre-eminent spy plane in the Air Force arsenal. 

The plane was designed in the 1950’s. And after it was launched it was widely criticized for being difficult to fly and even more difficult to land.  The Air Force was certain to replace it with a more ‘user-friendly’ plane.

Instead of the typical tricycle landing gear, the U-2 uses a bicycle configuration with a forward set of main wheels located just behind the cockpit, and a rear set of main wheels located behind the engine. The rear wheels are coupled to the rudder to provide steering during taxiing. To maintain balance while taxiing, two auxiliary wheels, called "pogos" are added for takeoff. The pogos fall off the aircraft on lift-off.

High-aspect-ratio wings give the U-2 some glider-like characteristics, with a lift-to-drag ratio estimated in the high 20s. The aircraft's stall speed at the cruising altitude of 70,000 feet is only 10 knots (12 mph; 19 km/h) below its maximum speed. It has an extremely small operating window. Also, the U-2 does not have power assisted control systems. Control inputs must be extreme to achieve the desired response in flight attitude, and a great deal of physical strength is needed to operate the controls in this manner.

The trickiest part of operating the plane is the landing. The plane is very sensitive to cross winds and has a tendency to float over the runway.  As the aircraft approaches the runway, the cushion of air provided by the high-lift wings in ground effect is so pronounced that the U-2 will not land unless the wing is fully stalled. Because of the plane’s unique design, the pilot (wearing an enclosed, helmeted flight suit similar to an astronaut’s that limits visibility) has to basically fly the aircraft at 140 mph just two feet off the ground, then cut the engine, deploy the flaps and essentially drop out of the sky. Once on the ground and at a full stop, the pilot drops one of the wingtips onto its titanium skid plate, the pogo wheels are reattached and the plane taxis off the runway.

Since the pilot can’t see what he is doing a chase pilot on the ground below assists the pilot by providing radio inputs for altitude and runway alignment.

The pilot must wear the equivalent of a space suit, because of the high operating altitude. The suit delivers the pilot's oxygen supply and emergency protection in case cabin pressure is lost at altitude (the cabin provides pressure equivalent to about 29,000 feet / 8,800 meters). To prevent hypoxia and decrease the chance of decompression sickness, pilots don a full pressure suit and begin breathing 100% oxygen one hour prior to launch to remove nitrogen from the body; while moving from the building to the aircraft they breathe from a portable oxygen supply

Although the avionics, camera and power plant have been upgraded since the 1950’s, not much else has changed. Since the 1980’s the Air Force had recommended scrapping the U-2 program.   They believe that satellites are more than capable of performing the spy duties. In 2006, Ronald Rumsfeld called for the retirement of the entire fleet by 2012, with many U-2s retired in 2007. 

But the U-2s have done everything but retire. Since 2010 the mission log has increased dramatically. U-2s from the 99th Expeditionary Reconnaissance Squadron have flown over 200 missions in support of Operations Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom; as well as Combined Joint Task Force – Horn of Africa. U-2s were also flying over Libya and Egypt during the Arab spring. Currently, U-2s are stationed in Cyprus to observe the conflict in Syria.

Just recently, the Obama administration requested $91 million to maintain the U-2 program. The Air Force also announced plans to maintain the U-2 fleet until 2023.

Many attempts have been made to replace the U-2; the A-12 in 1965, the SR-71 in 1970 and most recently the Global Hawk drone in 2007. The first two replacements were impractical. And at an estimated cost of $176 million each, the Global Hawk drone had "priced itself out of the market”.   Only the B-52 bomber has been in service longer.

"It's incredible to think that these planes are still flying," said Francis Gary Powers Jr., Powers' son and founder of the Cold War Museum in Warrenton, Va. "You'd think another spy plane, or satellite or drone would come along by now to replace it."

Are we just resting on our laurels or are we incapable of making a better spy plane?

General Characteristics
Primary Function: High-altitude reconnaissance 
Contractor: Lockheed Martin Aeronautics
Power Plant: One General Electric F118-101 engine
Thrust: 17,000 pounds
Wingspan: 105 feet (32 meters)
Length: 63 feet (19.2 meters)
Height: 16 feet (4.8 meters) 
Weight: 16,000 pounds
Maximum Takeoff Weight: 40,000 pounds (18,000 kilograms) 
Fuel Capacity: 2,950 gallons
Payload: 5,000 pounds

Flight Endurance: 12 hours
Cruise Speed: 429 miles per hour
Range: 7,000+ miles (6,090+ nautical miles)
Ceiling: Above 70,000 feet (21,212+ meters) (Some claim a ceiling of 88,000 feet)
Initial operating capability: 1956
Inventory: Active force, 33 (5 two-seat trainers and two ER-2s operated by NASA)

This site uses Facebook comments to make it easier for you to contribute. If you see a comment you would like to flag for spam or abuse, click the "x" in the upper right of it. By posting, you agree to our Terms of Use.

Page Tools