The Air Force is in the midst of swapping out the fleet of high-speed sport cars that chase down its sinister-looking black spy planes at breakneck speeds.
For more than 50 years, the chase cars have been critical to the high-flying U-2’s mission.
The jets have such long wingspans -- 105 feet -- that it's difficult for pilots to take off or land without people on the ground telling them about wing angles and clearance. So a pilot in the chase car radios to the pilot in the cockpit and lets him or her know how things look.
“We say the U-2 is the easiest plane to fly between 6 inches and 60,000 feet,” said Drew Buchanan, an Air Force spokesman. “But it’s the most difficult plane to land.”
The sports cars have to be in top shape to hurtle forward from a standstill to chase down the ominous U-2. Now the Air Force has opted for the new 400 horsepower V-8 Chevrolet Camaro SS to replace its fleet of Pontiac GTOs and Pontiac G8 GTs.
“They’re not like normal cars; we run them pretty fast every time out there,” Buchanan said, indicating that the cars can go in excess of 100 mph at times.
The Air Force said all the vehicles are mechanically stock. They are outfitted with radios to allow communication with aircraft.
U-2 pilots drive the chase cars and assist the landing pilots through radio calls. To become a U-2 pilot, you must also take a course that teaches you how to maintain high-performance cars at top speeds, the Air Force said.
Pilots are trained near Sacramento at Beale Air Force Base, where the U-2s are based.
The Air Force has a fleet of 33 U-2s and about 20 chase cars located across the globe.
The high-flying U-2 spy plane was first designed during the Eisenhower administration to breach the iron curtain and, engineers said, snap "picture postcards for Ike" of hidden military strongholds in the Soviet Union. The U-2 continues to play a critical role in national security today, hunting Al Qaeda forces.
Flying a nearly six-decade-old plane may sound risky, but the military's U-2s are regularly "rebuilt, redone and retrofitted," according to the plane’s maker, Lockheed Martin Corp. Each of the nation's 33 U-2s get refurbished at Lockheed's new Skunk Works facility in Palmdale.
Similarly, every decade or so, the Pentagon has upgraded to faster and more capable cars.
In the 1950s and '60s, U-2s were slow, so the Air Force could use old work trucks. But the military used El Caminos in the 1970s and 1980s. Starting in the 1990s, GTOs, G8s and Camaros took over as chase cars. The newest Camaros are being swapped in today.