In a wide-ranging interview today with the Chief of Staff of the Air Force, Gen. Michael Buzz Moseley, it came to our attention that the service had recently grounded its fleet of U-2 Dragon Lady surveillance planes due to dangerous fuel leaks.
Moseley used the occasion to bolster his case for funding to buy more satellite technology and RQ-4 Global Hawk high altitude aerial drones, a platform that has taken over most of the U-2s spying job.
Picture in your mind what a U-2 looks like, Moseley said. Its nothing but fuel, an engine and one of our Airmen in a space suit.So, if youve got leaks in the main sump tank that feeds the engine, adjacent to a wiring bundle arcing, you begin to paint a pretty interesting picture of an old airplane. So we said, not a good picture.
The grounding lasted a couple weeks until the problems were isolated and fixed, he said.
With Global Hawk, the Air Force can send the drone on a mission for 30 hours vice 11 hours for a piloted U-2, unless you want to subject the pilot to a lengthy decompression.
The computer chip doesnt know whether it needs to be decompressed or not, Moseley said.
Though the RQ-4 is due to replace the entire inventory of U-2s, the last of the spy planes will be kept in the air because they carry a high-tech signals intelligence package that the Global Hawk does not yet have. PaCom needs those U-2s for snooping missions over North Korea.
But Moseley said the days of Cuban Missile Crisis icon are indeed numbered. With the merger of the Global Hawk training squadron and the U-2 training unit at Beale, the pilots who learn to fly the drone go to the same school as those that fly the manned plane. Thats got to be pretty spooky for those space-suited Airmen.
The RQ-4 will ultimately receive an upgraded sigint package so the U-2 can be fully retired, an outcome the recent grounding proved couldnt come soon enough.
We will begin to go through these and retire them out so we dont have to worry about a hole in the fuel tank next to a wiring bundle arcing next to a person in a space suit at 60,000 feet plus. Not good! Moseley said.