Dancing with a Dragon: a physiologist’s tale

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt. Kentavist P. Brackin
  • 380th Air Expeditionary Wing Public Affairs

The following article is part two of a three-part series about the men and women behind the operation of the U-2 Dragon Lady reconnaissance aircraft.

Several attendants gather in a corner office before dawn to begin the process of testing a suit, designed with both functionality and comfort in mind, prepping it for the arrival of a single individual.

As he enters the room, he is greeted and directed to a plush leather chair by the attendants and presented what resembles a bright yellow space suit, which they begin to dress him in– starting with his feet first.

Once the fitting is complete, the assistants move away and the focus of their attention rises from his seat, now taller and bulkier, ready to endure the harsh, blood-boiling environment that lies ahead.

The attendants, 99th Expedition Reconnaissance Squadron physiological support technicians, have prepared another U-2 Dragon Lady reconnaissance aircraft pilot to brave the upper frontiers of the atmosphere.

“For the U-2 physiological support, our main focus is pilot’s full-pressure suit,” said Staff Sgt. Joseph, 99th ERS physiological support technician. “We perform maintenance on it, we inspect it, we dress the pilots in the suit and we hook them into the aircraft.”

Full-pressure suits are yellow garments averaging approximately $250,000 that allow pilots to survive at elevations of 70,000 feet.

“At right above 60,000 feet there is this place called Armstrong’s Line and where without any added protection your blood would literally start boiling in your skin,” said Joseph.

The suit is also methodically designed to help prevent hypoxia, decrease the chances of decompression sickness, while increasing the pilots comfort and mobility.

On a typical day, usually early in the morning, physiologists arrive approximately three hours prior to takeoff, to prepare everything for the pilot’s arrival.

Once the pilot meets with be physiological support technicians, they seat him and immediately began to fit him in the full-pressure suit, starting from the feet up.

According to Joseph, there are 13 different sizes of suit and one customizable suit. The size of the suit issued depends on a number of factors including the individual’s height, width, arm length and leg length.

Other preparations include loading the pilot’s survival equipment and food on the aircraft.

“We get their drink order, their food order, these are what we call their pilot particulars,” said Joseph. “Each pilot also has specific spurs and shoulder harnesses; we take those and load them in the jet so when we walk the pilot out all he has to do is get on the jet and fly out.”

Because of the pilot’s limited range of motion in the suit, technicians also assist the pilots in hooking into the aircraft.

Once the pilot’s is hooked into the aircraft, the physiological technicians’ work is done; they now wait to hear about their suit’s performance.

“The higher the altitude the more dangerous it becomes, said Staff Sgt. Julie, 99th ERS aerospace physiological technician. “The pilot becomes susceptible to elements such as reduced oxygen, which can cause hypoxia.”

If such an event were to happen, the suit of armor prepared by Joseph and Julie kicks in, inflating and turning the pilot into someone bearing a resemblance to the Michelin Man.

“There have only been a couple of times in my career where one of our pilots experienced this, but the suit worked as advertised and brought them home safely,” said Julie. “The amount of pride and self-gratification that comes with that feeling is hard to describe. It’s when you know you did your job right, the mission succeeded and pilot made it back safety without encountering any issues with the suit.”

Next week’s article: Part 3 -- Dancing with a Dragon: a pilot’s tale.

Due to safety and security concerns last names were removed.