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U-2 pilot shortage forces USAF’s hand

Photo: The USAF will take pilots straight out of training for the U-2. Jamie Hunter


The US Air Force’s U-2S ‘Dragon Lady’ pilot community is facing a chronic manpower shortfall. The U-2 community has been under threat of retirement for several years, which caused some support issues, however the type is now safe until at least 2022, which has brought some welcome stability. One pilot told Combat Aircraft: ‘Our manning is quite low right now so we deploy pretty quickly once we are trained and we deploy fairly regularly.’

Traditionally, pilots have been hand-picked for the tricky U-2 from other communities, which in recent times has seen a lot of transitions of experienced pilots from types such as the C-130. However, the USAF says that from this fall student pilots can go to the U-2 directly from undergraduate pilot training via a Pilot Instructor Training Course at Joint Base San Antonio-Randolph, Texas. They will then join the U-2 First Assignment Companion Trainer program. This will see prospective U-2 pilots going to Beale AFB, California, to join the famous 9th Reconnaissance Wing and two years as a T-38A instructor pilot as part of the U-2 Companion Trainer Program to build experience. They can then enter the demanding U-2 interview process.

Writing in Combat Aircraft’s July issue, former U-2 pilot Lt Col (ret’d) Rick Bishop recounted how he joined this elite group of USAF aviators and his first taste of flying the U-2. ‘Releasing the brakes, he [Bishop’s instructor pilot] firewalled the throttle as I was slammed back in the seat and after a take-off roll of about 250ft the U-2 leapt into the air as he rotated the nose past 60-degrees skyward, dumping my cheat sheets somewhere behind the ejection seat. We took-off halfway down the runway with 6,000ft remaining and leveled off at 10,000ft before crossing the departure end! All I could remember during that 40-second climb from brake release was uttering one expletive prior to becoming speechless.’

Read the full story of Bishop’s selection process in our July issue, available online from

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