04 December, 2014

Profile 94: UPDATE—the U-2R as flown by Stan Rauch, 5th RS

You can't meet a U-2 pilot without wondering, "So what did you really do?"

After all, it's a top-secret aircraft carrying top-secret gadgetry on top-secret missions...and what about that little capsule of cyanide that every U-2 pilot is rumored to have in his pocket?

I had to ask.  And Stan immediately answered with a detailed analysis of the U-2's handling characteristics.  Repeat.  Handling characteristics.  That wasn't what I asked.

Ooookay then.  But what did I expect—his flight log?!  Don't get me wrong.  I'd love to have a look.  And maybe with my Minox camera, too.  But whether we like it or not, there are secrets best kept.  As an "almost Millenial" I get the persistent need-to-know and effervescent demand for transparency.  But I'm old enough and experienced enough to know when such needs are reasonable.   I didn't push it.

Thankfully, Stan knows when to throw the dog a bone.

Minox spy camera.  Yep. I got one! Don't know what I'm going to do with it but if I ever need to break into an office and take pictures of letters, I'm set.

"Well, there's a mission that I think you'd find interesting."

"Really?  Do tell!"

"Ever hear of the Mayaguez?"

Hold that thought for a minute so I can bring you up to speed.  Have a look at the progress-shot above.  Though it looks basically done, it's a long way from it.  The rough, black, radar-absorbing finish is diabolically tricky to recreate and there's much more research to do to make sure I get all the right bumps, curves and lines that conceal the U-2R's stash of techno sorcery.  I figure there's at least 15 more hours to go.  Which is just a few hours more than a typical U-2 mission.

Typical?  Well, in terms of initial goal, yes.  There are two basic missions a U-2 will fly:  Photographic and SIGINT.

Photographic missions shouldn't need explanation.  However, as a visualization, have a look at the picture below.  It was actually taken in 1944 by an F-5* flying recon over southern France.  The original photo is about 12" square and so detailed, it just begs to be examined with a magnifying glass.  You can well imagine how imaging technology has increased since then!     Yet, a photo pass is essentially the same process as when the first cameras were put in WWI biplanes.  Fly, point, click, run home with the evidence.
Photo courtesy Burt Hawley, 23rd PRS

SIGINT is a different story.  The acronym stands for SIGnals INTelligence and a SIGINT mission is a complicated, involved and carefully choreographed exercise in which the U-2 plays but a link in a long chain.  SIGINT is all about finding, capturing and interpreting the myriad of signals that emanate from a country, a group or even an individual.   Signals like radio.  Television.  Microwave.  Radiation.  Cell phones.  Even the signals thrown off by electrical grids.  On a SIGINT mission, the U-2 is actually the middle-man between the source and the interpreter.

Ok.  Have another look at the drawing on top.  See those black cylinders taking shape under the wing?  Those, as well as the nose, are full of tech that are accessed and manipulated, not by the U-2 pilot, but by men and women in downlink stations hundreds if not thousands of miles away.

Like this.
Not to scale, of course.  If it was, that'd mean the U-2's wingspan would be about 2,000 miles wide.

These missions are grueling; eight, ten, twelve hours of sitting, clad in a restrictive space suit, flying a precision course to relay invisible data to gawd-knows-where.  And the U-2 pilot isn't up there simply holding the antennae. The sub-space environment and narrow flight envelope call for tremendous focus and extraordinary skills (more about that the next post!).

Now's a perfect time to get back to the Mayaguez.

On May 12, 1975, the Vietnam War may have been "over," but it was still smoldering sparks.  One of those sparks was just getting ready to roar into its own hellish inferno in Cambodia.  The country's communist contingent, the Khmer Rouge, were spoiling for a fight.

Emboldened by the fall of South Vietnam, the Khmer Rouge "Navy*" discovered an American cargo ship en route to Thailand from (the former) South Vietnam.  They seized the ship, imprisoned the crew and flipped President Ford the bird.

Click here.

A little context is in order here.  The U.S. was still bleeding from the various wounds of the Vietnam War.  On one side, it hurt to see former promises come to naught with the fall of South Vietnam.  On the other, American Might had weakened and was being taunted by virtually anyone with a rock to throw.  Including the barbaric Khmer Rouge.

Therefore, when the KR commandeered the Mayaguez, President Ford was in no mood to take anyone's spit.  Two days later, the KR's navy port was bombed and a team of Marines were sent in to rescue the prisoners.

It didn't go smoothly.

In the end, at least sixty died**, three choppers were lost, diplomatic relations with Thailand were damaged...but President Ford's approval rating rose 11 points on account of his unwillingness to take any grief.  It was a tough call but the crew came home safe.

(There really should be a movie about this).

But above it all, Stan Rauch orbited in his U-2.  On May 15, during the heat of the conflict, he was "on the spot," as the only airborne U-2 in that part of the planet.  At the time, he didn't know what to expect, only that the pre-mission briefing included going to a specific radio frequency and personally relaying information relating to the Mayaguez.  In other words, for all the high-tech at his disposal, he was going to have a very personal but low-tech role.

"So what did you do?"

"I relayed transmissions received from a Command and Control entity onto an unknown entity."

"You mean your U-2 was transmitting..."

"No.  I physically relayed information.  Everything I heard, I transmitted."

"Via voice?!"

"Yes.  What I heard, I spoke.  The relayed transmissions were boosted long-range as the result of the (U-2's) high altitude."

"For how long?"

"About eight hours."

"To whom?!"

"I don't know."

"Didn't they say, 'thanks' or..."




"So this 'unknown entity'...they remained unknown for the whole mission?"


"Yes." (laughs) "I just transmitted (on the pre-briefed frequency).  It was an unusual mission for sure!"

This is a still from the tv show, "Green Acres."  Remember it?  I didn't.  Just like I didn't remember the Mayaguez.
But evidently, in Green Acres, you dressed up like James Bond before climbing a telephone pole to make a phone call.

Well, so much for the glamor of international intrigue.  Stan played telephone operator.  For eight hours.  And for those eight hours, he was probably the most highly paid, highly valued and certainly highest-altitude telephone operator, ever.   I asked him if he remembered anything specific that he spoke and he said that it seemed like play-by-play stuff; "...forces moving into position,"  "ready to board ship..." Really, read about the incident by clicking here and you'll know a hell of a lot more than Stan did at the time.

There was also the time the Egyptians "painted" Stan's U-2 while flying recon missions in support of the Camp David accords of 1977-78.***  Stan recalls flying down the Suez Canal area and seeing the tell-tale lights blink-on as Egyptian missile sites 'greeted' him... I probably could have pressed him for more mission info but I know what happens when amateurs trifle with pros.

That is, until he let me in on a little known secret that the U-2 would actually carry skid fif0w 3249 hifi a89d,,l1! a523... (transmission fades)

Stand by.   I'll have this U-2 finished in about a week and in my final post, Stan will describe the complexities and nuances of flying this incredible airplane.

Have a look below.  Looks like fun, yes?  Evidently it is.  If you're capable in the first place...

*Of course, the erudite among us know the F-5 was a P-38 Lightning fighter turned into a photo recon machine by switching out the machine guns with cameras.  Want to know more?  Click here.

**Though I can make a good case they weren't actually human beings, I'm including Khmer Rouge in the number in addition to the 38 Americans soldiers that were killed—15 in combat action and 23 more when one of the rescue helicopters crashed. 50 more Americans were wounded for a total casualty-count of approximately 130.

***Of course you remember the famous Camp David accords, don't you?  That was when peace finally came to the Middle East and everyone became fast friends. (cough cough).