The U.S. Air Force’s 1st Reconnaissance Squadron is celebrating its 100th anniversary. On March 5, 1913, Army General John Pershing directed the creation of the 1st Aero Squadron to provide tactical aviation support against Mexican incursions into the United States and the raids in force into Mexico against those attackers. Temporarily designated the 1st Bombardment Squadron during World War II, the unit conducted some of the most devastating raid on the Japanese homeland of the war. Over Vietnam, the squadron flew the SR-71 Blackbird. At the present, both the U-2 high-altitude reconnaissance aircraft and the Global Hawk drone system are being flown.
On March 12, bloggers were briefed by a U-2 pilot from Beale Air Force Base and the 1st Reconnaissance Squadron. His name was withheld for security purposes, and he identified himself as Captain JC. He spoke primarily about the history and current use of the U-2 aircraft.
The U-2 dates from the 1950’s, though the current models being flown were manufactured in the late 1980’s. The aircraft has continued to receive avionic and engine updates, as well as new intelligence gathering equipment which now includes both a film and digital camera. It has outlasted the SR-71 air frame that was intended to replace it.
Captain JC explained that the chief advantage that gather intelligence through the use of the U-2 or Global Hawk aircraft is that such flights are unpredictable. Satellite orbits are known and the exact time one will be over a given spot is easily calculated. Hiding from satellite observation is common. An aircraft overflight cannot be predicted and it is far more difficult to conceal activity from them.
The U-2 has been used to provide imagery in a number of humanitarian missions. At the request of FEMA after Hurricane Katrina, a U-2 mission used its Optical Bar Camera to film the storm damaged area in detail. In 2007 both the U-2 and Global Hawk was used to provide fire officials with images of the California wildfires then burning. In Jan. 2010, a U-2 mission overflew Haiti a few days after the massive earthquake and the Optical Bar Camera provided detailed images of the damage. Within two days after the 2011 Japanese earthquake and tsunami, both U-2 and Global Hawk missions were being flown. The U-2 was flown from Osan Air Base, South Korea, and global hawks were piloted from Andersen Air Force Base, Guam.
The U-2 aircraft is flown at altitudes up to 70,000 feet. The pilot must wear a pressure suit similar to that an astronaut might wear. The current number of U-2 pilots includes two women, according to Captain JC. Pilots need a minimum of 500 hours in fixed wing aircraft to qualify to apply for any open spots. Current pilots include former Marine and Coast Guard aviators who transferred into the Air Force.