For Immediate Release
March 19, 2010
Veteran Pilot Oldest Ever to Take Flight on Historic U-2
Arlington, VA – Ollie Crawford has spent a lifetime in the skies, but just experienced his best view yet.
At 84 years old – the oldest person to ever go up in the famed U-2 reconnaissance aircraft – he recently took a rare two-and-a-half hour flight at 72,000 feet. That’s over 13-and-a-half miles straight up, roughly twice the height of a typical long flight across the U.S. on a commercial jet.
“I could see the curvature of the earth,” Crawford said.
At that height, the skies above are darkened, almost black. The moon is exceptionally bright through minimal atmosphere, and the earth curves away in the distance below for a stunning view.
Flying out of Beale Air Force Base, the U-2 headed north to the Oregon border then turned west to the Pacific. “I could see snow-covered mountains all the way to the Canadian border,” he said.
Oliver R. “Ollie” Crawford flew P-40 and P-51 fighters at the end of World War II as a lieutenant, and served in the Army Air Corps, Air Force and Air Force Reserves for a combined 16 years. He finally retired from flying P-40s in air shows at age 80. Along the way, he’s flown many aircraft, including the F-16 Fighting Falcon, the F-15 Eagle, the F-105 and the F-111.
But a lifetime of experience doesn’t prepare anyone for the unique demands of the U-2. He spent three days in classes learning what to expect, preparing himself for a high-altitude bail out if necessary and being fitted for the cumbersome sealed suit, complete with a domed helmet and gloves.
As preparation for both the decompression chamber and the flight itself, he breathed straight oxygen for an hour to remove nitrogen from his bloodstream. Then he went into a decompression chamber for a feel of what it would be like at 72,000 feet. Within the chamber, he could see the nearby beaker of water begin to boil at 65,000 feet. Without the spacesuit, his blood would do the same.
They took him well above the 72,000-foot mark in the decompression chamber to ensure he was physically prepared for the rigors of the flight. If the 100 percent oxygen purge of his blood had not been thorough enough, he would experience pain and cramping in his joints, but he had no difficulty.
From takeoff to landing, the U-2 is an experience remarkably different than lower altitude aircraft. He experienced the flight wedged tightly into an ejection seat in the narrow cockpit, window panes inches from his face on either side, at a higher viewpoint than the pilot in front of him.
“We climbed at a very sharp angle,” he said. “It was just amazing.”
The landing tests the skills of the pilot to the limit. The U-2, built in the 1950s by Lockheed, has an enormous wingspan proportionally. That enables the aircraft’s altitude and range, but makes it unwieldy on the ground. To avoid tipping, temporary wheels are placed under each wingtip for takeoff, but those wheels are unavailable for landing. The pilot has to touch down with the wings precisely aligned and balanced. To complicate matters, the pilot cannot see what is below and is talked down by a similarly highly skilled crew lined up and following closely in a chase vehicle.
Crawford was able to observe a textbook landing by Captain James A. Bartran, a “real feat,” he said.
The flight, just publicized last month by Beale’s 9th Reconnaissance Wing, was in December 2009.
“It was a great experience I’ll never forget,” Crawford said.
Crawford served as National President for the Air Force Association in 1991-1992, then National Chairman in 1993-1994. It was under his administration at AFA that the Air Force Memorial Foundation was created, leading to the soaring spires of the nation’s Air Force Memorial in Arlington, Virginia, dedicated in 2006. Crawford served as the first Chairman of the Foundation.
The AFA is a 501(C)(3), nonprofit organization promoting public understanding of aerospace power and the pivotal role it plays in the security of the nation. AFA has over 200 chapters nationally and internationally representing 120,000 members. Visit AFA www.AFA.org.
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