The U-2 Dragon Lady As You Have Never Seen It Before
Professional photographer Blair Bunting just flew an unprecedented air-to-air shoot at around 70,000-feet in the legendary U-2 spy plane.
For fans of military aviation — or flying in general — in the civilian world, the chance to get a ride in the cockpit of a combat aircraft is very likely top of many a bucket list. But there’s surely one in-service military jet that has a little more allure than most, for which getting strapped into is just the prelude to a trip into the stratosphere. That jet is the unique U-2 Dragon Lady spy plane, and one civilian photographer recently got a chance to fly in it and execute an air-to-air shoot unlike any other.
Our friend Blair Bunting, based out of Phoenix, Arizona, was that individual and he has documented his trip with his own incredible photos in his trademark style, as well as accompanying video, together with a written account about how it all came together. And, much like the U-2 itself, many of those images also look like they come from out of this world…
As to how it came to be, Blair’s own career as a photographer brought him into contact with the U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds and a photo and video shoot with the demonstration squadron — “a wild ruckus of a flight,” in his words. After that, a friend of Blair’s, a former pilot of the 425th Fighter Squadron, suggested he go one step further and try and get a flight in the legendary U-2.
“50,000 feet is higher than a jetliner, but you know there’s a plane that goes even higher?” his friend told him. And with that, Blair embarked on a mission to get into the cockpit of a U-2.
“A few months later, I was visiting a friend at the Pentagon, and the conversation came up again about the U-2,” Blair recounts on his web page. “At this point, I’d started talking with Beale Air Force Base in Northern California about visiting and photographing the U-2.”
Happily, someone at Beale had also seen Blair’s earlier work with the Thunderbirds and that helped to secure a trip to the base for a photo shoot, albeit one that would take place on the ground.
“Talking about doing a high-altitude flight in a U-2 is akin to a dog chasing a car,” Blair says. “The idea sounds incredible, but the concept of what to do when it comes to fruition is so far removed from comprehension that it is easier to have never chased it.”
Still, Blair chased it, remaining in dialogue with the base “for months.”
A fatal U-2 accident that also saw the loss of a rare two-seat U-2 then put the project indefinitely on ice, before the base got back in touch with Blair about the first series of ground photos, a full six years after they had been taken. Then, in a conversation with a new public affairs officer, the topic of a Dragon Lady flight came up once again.
Understandably, a huge amount of paperwork had to be dealt with before Blair even got close to the U-2 flight line and, once the sortie was green-lit, he was left, in his words, “stunned and in disbelief.” He added: “I didn’t know what to think or who I could even tell. Just hearing myself say it to my parents had me realizing this was a situation that was unbelievable to most.”
That was just the start, however, since what followed was an almost total immersion in preparations for the flight, meeting with everyone from “squadron and base commanders to plane mechanics and the pilots that fly them” to understand how best to capture imagery from the U-2.
Then, of course, was the all-important spacesuit fitting, working out three times a week, not to mention researching what kinds of commercial cameras actually work at 70,000 feet (almost 300 camera and lens combinations were tested).
When it came to shooting images up here, too, the peculiarities of the spacesuit would pose particular difficulties, as Blair recalls:
“The spacesuit was tailored so that if a rapid decompression happened, the pilot’s arms would stay down so that they could eject from the plane. This made it difficult to photograph, as the suit fights you when trying to raise your arms with a camera. On top of this, I would have to rely on a liquid-crystal display (LCD) screen as the fishbowl on my head made it impossible to use the regular viewfinder. These were only some of the considerations I had to think about daily.”
There was even daily meditation, recommended by another pilot, which goes to show the extraordinary lengths to which Blair went to make sure the flight went just as it should.
Once it finally came to the details of the mission, Beale confirmed they would launch two Dragon Ladies, one a two-seat TU-2S carrying Blair and his pilot, and the second a single-seat U-2S.
Blair explains: “Once we both reached high altitude, we would rendezvous and get the aircraft as close as we safely could to create images of the plane as it entered the darkness with ice beginning to form on its surface.”
As you might imagine, the last few days of preparation before the sortie itself were incredibly intense, with a seemingly never-ending checklist tempered by Blair’s own understandable nerves. After all, as he reflects: “The grandiosity and magnitude of it all were becoming more potent by the day, and I could hardly believe what I was preparing for.” Nevertheless, “With hundreds of phone calls and emails behind us, we knew we had done everything possible to make the shoot successful. Now was the time to bring it to life.”
“In the first hour of being on the base, I realized how significant this was. The gravity of what was unfolding before me really started to sink in, and there was an electric feeling in the air.”
This feeling was heightened due to the fact that it had been a long time since the last civilian had actually flown in a U-2 and going up to the aircraft's true operating ceiling was another thing entirely.
Come the day of the flight, Blair had done all the preparation that was demanded of him, plus a lot more extra as well, and as the clock struck 6:00 AM, “we jumped in the car and headed to the base, blasting a mix of Dubstep and metal to keep my anxiety at bay.”
Blair’s flight was notable in that it was, according to him, the first time a high-altitude formation with two U-2s had been put up specifically for a photoshoot.
“Doing a photoshoot like this at the edge of space is entirely different than when I did the same thing with fighter jets,” Blair reflected. “At these altitudes, there are only 5 knots of speed that separate the planes from going so fast they fall apart or going too slow that they fall out of the sky completely. For this reason, we had to use geometric turns to stagger the aircraft rather than having the second plane speed up or slow down, which was yet another complexity that made this photoshoot as challenging as it was.”
What followed probably felt like a blur of the familiar chase cars long associated with the U-2 program, the rapid, sailplane-like climb to altitude, and, ultimately, the two spy planes making their “rendezvous at the top of the Earth’s atmosphere.”
We asked Bunting about about his major takeaways from completing the rarest of air-to-air photography shoots:
"I think the most surprising part of it all was when we got to the edge of the atmosphere and I looked up only to see the sun against the black background with the moon not too far from it, also against the blackness of space. I had done my best to mentally visualize what it would be like, but that was a situation I could've never predicted. It was a sight to behold."
"The hardest part of the entire project was the mental aspect of it all. Not only does one have to get comfortable being in a very loud, claustrophobic space suit, but you also have to be able to control your emotions and compartmentalize things, as crying at altitude is not possible. Irritating your eyes can be a big issue if you can't touch them due to the spacesuit helmet. Beyond that, we had to take measures to keep my heart rate and respiration (breathing) reduced as any excess excitement or fatigue would result in icing over the cockpit and I would not be able to take pictures."
"In retrospect, it is truly a humbling experience. I feel deep gratitude for the trust bestowed on me by those at the Air Force, Beale Air Force Base, and the video teams. I could have never deserved such an opportunity, no matter how hard I tried, and I'm still processing it all. I don't know if I will ever be able to fully realize the view that I took in when the Earth curved below the blackness of space, but just the opportunity to witness it has meant everything to me."
You can read more about this incredible flight in Blair’s own account.
Blair's extraordinary journey in the iconic and incredibly long-serving spy plane paid homage to all those who have flown and supported the Dragon Lady over the better part of a century, and it serves as a fitting tribute to the U-2 as it flies off into the dimming twilight of its illustrious service.
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