An Air Force investigation into a U-2 spy plane crash near the Sutter Buttes in September revealed a tragic error when a pilot in his first flight in the famed spy plane throttled up too quickly in a training exercise on recovering from a midair stall.
As a result of the fateful maneuver, the Air Force announced Wednesday, the aircraft went into an “unintentional secondary stall.” According to a detailed report on the incident, the U-2 suddenly rolled hard, banking to the left. A training pilot voiced an order: “Eject, dude.”
During the ejection, the instructor pilot from Beale Air Force Base, Lt. Col. Ira S. Eadie died and the other pilot was injured. The plane plunged into grassy hills in Sutter County, setting off a 250-acre wildfire.
Fire crews raced to put out the blaze as search and rescue teams searched for the pilots in remote terrain. The aircraft, worth about $32 million, was a total loss.
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“During the ejection sequence, the instructor pilot and his ejection seat struck the aircraft’s right wing resulting in fatal injuries,” an Air Force news release stated.
In an interview, Air Force Maj. A.J. Schrag at Langley Air Force Base in Virginia said the exercise involved putting the aircraft into “aerodynamic stall” – not an actual engine shutdown – in which the plane isn’t flying with sufficient speed to overcome the gravitational forces. He said the pilot is instructed to drop the nose of the aircraft downward and increase velocity “to generate enough lift” to resume proper air speed to maintain flight.
Schrag said the Langley-based Air Combat Investigation Board concluded that the trainee pilot pulled out of the simulated stall too quickly, causing a second stall from which the crew couldn’t recover. The Air Force news release said the plane plunged sharply to the left with the nose of the plane at “excessive” low altitude.
“A secondary stall is something a young pilot may often do,” Schrag said. “They will too quickly pull back on the nose and that gets them into a second stall. This occurred about 10 minutes into the pilot’s first flight in the U-2 and he didn’t have the skill set yet. He tried a recovery … and demanded too much vertical movement before the aircraft was able to fly again.”
Schrag said the surviving pilot is still active and that his name isn’t being released under Air Force policy. He was treated for minor injuries at an area hospital after the Sept. 20 incident.
The aircraft was assigned to the 1st Reconnaissance Squadron, part of the 9th Reconnaissance Wing at Beale Air Force Base near Marysville, where the U-2 fleet is based and its planes are deployed to military detachments around the world.
Potential U-2 pilots are selected from the Air Force’s pool of qualified aviators to undergo three acceptance flights as part of an interview process. The flights give potential U-2 pilots a chance to familiarize themselves with the spy plane under supervision of instructors such as Eadie.
“The purpose of this report was to identify the causes and contributing factors which may have contributed to the incident,” said Brig. Gen. David S. Nahom, air combat accident investigation board president. “This was a terrible tragedy, and our heartfelt condolences go out to Lt. Col. Eadie’s family.”
The U-2, a sleek black jet known as the Dragon Lady, became known for an international incident in 1960 when American Capt. Francis Gary Powers was shot down and taken prisoner after flying surveillance aircraft over the Soviet Union. The U-2 also gained fame for uncovering a secret Soviet launch site in the Cuban missile crisis of 1962.
Since that time, the U-2 has continued to play a critical military role, collecting imagery and electronic measurements on surveillance flights targeting terrorist networks in the Middle East.
The Air Force has long planned to replace the U-2, normally flown with one pilot, with unmanned RQ-4 Global Hawks, remotely controlled aircraft first deployed by the Air Force in 2001. The Global Hawks are also stationed at Beale, from which they fly thousands of miles to pinpoint human targets for armed Predator and Reaper drones.
The U-2 has been a point of pride for the Beale community, with the long-standing program also seen as an important economic resource for the region.
Read the accident report