U-2 spy plane arrives at Robins

wcrenshaw@macon.comAugust 24, 2012 

ROBINS AIR FORCE BASE -- On the rare occasions when a U-2 Dragon Lady spy plane lands at Robins Air Force Base, it’s a dramatic event that involves a sports car chasing it down the runway.

But a U-2 arrived at the base Friday with a good bit less pizzazz, although not less fanfare.

The main fuselage of the aircraft arrived on the back of a flatbed truck, having traveled from Palmdale, Calif. The plane suffered damage during routine maintenance there in 2008. Engineers and maintainers at Robins will spend a few weeks looking at it to determine whether it can be repaired.

If it can be fixed, it may be sent back to Palmdale, or the work may be done here, which would make it the first time a U-2 has been repaired at Robins, said Col. Fred Kennedy, the U-2 assistant program manager.

About 100 people at Robins are responsible for management of the U-2 planes, although maintenance is done under contract in Palmdale. Program managers brought it here to determine whether the repair could be done more economically, Kennedy said.

Built in 1987, the plane is the newest in the fleet. He put its value at “several hundred million dollars.”

“It is well worth looking at to see if our folks here at Robins can take care of this problem and put this back on the ramp,” he said. “I would love to see this thing fly out of here.”

A smaller part of the fuselage arrived earlier, and the wings will be coming later. Kennedy said the damage occurred when the hydrogen system on the plane accidentally discharged during maintenance, causing blisters to the structure on both sides of the plane.

Because it is a structural issue, Robins’ lack of experience with working on the U-2 isn’t as important as its expertise in structural repair in general, Kennedy said. Despite the uniqueness of the plane, nothing about the structure would make the repair more challenging than it would be on any other aircraft, Kennedy said.

The plane flies on the edge of outer space and requires the use of a spotter in a chase car to land. Pilots wear a suit similar to that of an astronaut.

The Department of Defense has tried to retire the U-2, but the Cold War icon has hung on because drone aircraft that were supposed to replace it haven’t proven as cost effective. Kennedy said the program office has been directed to plan to keep the U-2 flying beyond 2025.

Col. Timothy Molnar, commander of the 402nd Aircraft Maintenance Group, said it’s too soon to tell how long the work might take if the plane is repaired.

However, he said there has been no shortage of volunteers for the job.

“The opportunity here to work on a Dragon Lady and to be a part of that assessment team is a great honor,” Molnar said. “The U-2 aircraft is a piece of history.”

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