An Alfa Romeo Stelvio chasing down a Lockheed U-2 sounds like a scene out of some Italian spy movie. Truth is sometimes stranger than fiction, though, because I’m talking about a real, official Air Force operation that made its way to social media earlier this week. Trust me: it'll all make sense when you understand a little more about the U-2.
The interception was shared on Instagram by Mindy Lindheim (@schmiiindy), who was riding along in the Alfa Romeo during the interception. The driver can be heard rattling off numbers as she pushes the pedal to the floor, the Alfa's four-cylinder engine revving its heart out to reach speeds as high as 115 mph. (It's clearly not the Quadrifoglio, which uses a 2.9-liter, 505-horsepower twin-turbo V6.) The "Dragon Lady" then peels off, reascending into the sky. There's a reason for all of this—which I'll now explain.
The U-2 is an infamously tricky plane to fly, owing to its glider-like flight properties. They're useful for maintaining a high altitude, but they also generate a powerful high-pressure zone beneath the craft near the surface. That means landing the plane is tricky, and made even more difficult by its poor forward visibility. The only way to land a U-2 is by stalling, by literally falling out of the sky, though not from too high; too big a fall could crumple the landing gear.
That's why during landing, the Air Force employs a chase car with a spotter who tells the pilot how far off the runway they are. At the proper altitude, they cut power to initiate the stall. In the 67 years since the U-2's introduction, the Air Force has used a wide variety of chase vehicles, with Beale Air Force Base acknowledging use of "Camaros, Pontiacs, Subarus, Mercedes, Audis... etc." So why a four-cylinder midsize crossover?
As it turns out, "this was the fastest rental car on the field they could find," Lindheim said in Instagram comment. "At U-2 bases, they have Dodge Chargers from what I was told."
"We use whatever we can outside of home base," added another commenter. "We get some pretty exciting vehicles here and there."
Lindheim added that the plane was not landing and that the venerable Dragon Lady was "just 'dropping by' to say hello to the crowd." The crowd, of course, being visitors to the Experimental Aircraft Association's Airventure, an aerospace convention in Oshkosh, Wisconsin. It's partially an industry event, but it has weeklong daily air shows that attract a global audience.
This occasion doesn't mark the first time an unusual vehicle has been used to chase a U-2; the even slower and more brick-like Ford Bronco was employed as one in 2021. And it probably won't be the last, not with the U-2 expected to haunt the sky until at least 2025.
Got a tip or question for the author? You can reach them here: email@example.com