A pilot from Beale Air Force Base was killed and a second was injured Tuesday after a U-2 spy plane, one of the most famous aircraft of the Cold War era, crashed Tuesday morning near the Sutter Buttes.
The pilots, participating in a training mission, ejected from the aircraft before it plunged into grassy hills in Sutter County.
The crash set 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.
“We are still working to make access to the patients to (determine) how we are going to get them out of the area they are in,” Sutter County Fire Chief John Shalowitz said early Tuesday afternoon. The Air Force confirmed shortly afterward that one pilot was dead.
Shalowitz said 20 engine units responded to battle the fire, which was set off in hot conditions with a 20 mph breeze. Near the crash site, a smoldering wing, fuselage and tail of the aircraft were visible on the horizon. The fire was extinguished Tuesday afternoon. The names of the pilots were not released.
“The incident is currently under investigation,” said the statement from the Air Force’s 9th Reconnaissance Wing. “Additional details will be provided as they become available.”
Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein posted on Facebook that he was “deeply saddened” by the death of the pilot. “We offer our deepest condolences to the airman’s family and to all who are mourning this tremendous loss,” he said.
The aircraft was assigned to the 1st Reconnaissance Squadron, part of the 9th Reconnaissance Wing at Beale Air Force Base, where the U-2 fleet is based and its 33 planes are deployed to military detachments around the world. Over 1,000 personnel work on the U-2 program at the base near Marysville.
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.
While the military says the cost of a U-2 is classified, the military information site GlobalSecurity.org puts the price tag of the current model at $400 million. In 2012, the Air Force said it had spent $1.7 billion over eight years to modernize the aircraft with new flight and surveillance technology.
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, celebrated in the movie “Bridge of Spies,” 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. This spring, Rep. Doug LaMalfa, R-Richvale, offered a budget amendment to keep the U-2 operating at Beale through 2017.
“We want to make sure it stays there … It’s important for Northern California with the number of people employed at Beale Air Force Base,” LaMalfa said in a May interview with KNCO radio in Grass Valley.
Col. Larry Broadwell, Commander of the 9th Reconnaissance Wing at Beale, gave tribute to the U-2 program at a news conference at the base Tuesday afternoon. He described the day as an emotional one.
“I would match the safety and maintenance records of a U-2 with any other aircraft the Air Force flies. In fact, we are going to continue flying U-2 missions around the world and around the clock,” Broadwell said. He said Air Force officials were reaching out to family members of the pilots, who were not identified.
It was not the first time that a Beale U-2 has crashed in Northern California. Pilot Randy Roby’s U-2 spy plane fell from the sky in 1996, crashing into a parking lot next to the Mercury-Register newspaper in Oroville. Roby ejected from the plane but was found dead in his seat at the end of the parachute. Geraldine Marie “Jerri” Vering, 49, of Oroville, a customer who had just finished renewing a subscription at the newspaper office, was killed on the ground.
The last fatal accident involving a U-2 pilot took place in 2005, when one of the aircraft crashed near an air base in United Arab Emirates. That accident killed Maj. Duane Dively, a pilot from Beale who was deployed to the Middle East. He was returning from a mission over Afghanistan when he crashed.
More recently, the Air Force had expensive U-2 mishaps in both 2014 and 2015. Those “class A” accidents are those that cause more than $2 million in damage or cause a permanent injury to an airman. One class A accident took place in each of those years, according to records kept by the Air Force Safety Center at Kirtland Air Force Base in New Mexico.
Those two accidents broke a five-year run in which the U-2 aircraft did not experience any serious mishaps.
Keith Wright, a spokesman for Air Force Safety Center, said Tuesday’s accident would trigger an investigation seeking to identify “the root cause” of the crash. The board is expected to consist of officers from Beale Air Force Base and from the Air Force Safety Center, which oversee all inspection and safety functions for the Air Force.
Bill Lindelof contributed to this report.
U-2S/TU-2S general characteristics*
Primary function: High-altitude reconnaissance
Contractor: Lockheed Martin Aeronautics
Power plant: One General Electric F118-101 engine
Thrust: 17,000 pounds
Wingspan: 105 feet
Length: 63 feet
Height: 16 feet
Weight: 16,000 pounds
Maximum takeoff weight: 40,000 pounds
Fuel capacity: 2,950 gallons
Payload: 5,000 pounds
Speed: 410 mph
Range: More than 7,000 miles
Ceiling: Above 70,000 feet
Crew: One (two in trainer models)
Unit cost: Classified
Initial operating capability: 1956
Inventory: Active force, 33 (5 two-seat trainers and two ER-2s operated by NASA); Reserve, 0; ANG, 0
Source: U.S. Air Force
* Information as of September 2015