DAY THREE: Crucial stealth tests pilot, drains photographer
Eluding enemy captors in hostile territory and silently crawling in underbrush after a simulated crash landing, U-2 pilot trainee Maj. Blane Kilpper and I pondered the next critical move.
The goal was to return safely with "friendly forces."
Kilpper, an accomplished T-38 instructor and pilot, was participating in evasion and extraction exercises in the Tahoe National Forest near Grass Valley recently as part of his acceptance into the Air Force's U-2 program. He practiced for a life-or-death situation he hoped to never encounter. I just tried to keep up and not get him caught.
The exercise began with being dropped off in a heavily wooded area with no bearing whatsoever. There were more than a dozen aggressors and a helicopter searching for us. We quietly dashed into some thick underbrush about 50 yards away, and Kilpper produced an array of navigation essentials including a map, compass, global positioning system and a special multi-function military radio. While studying the map and getting the approximate direction, we crawled off.
The first half-mile consisted of using our hands and knees to move as stealth-like as possible down a steep embankment. Sometimes sliding low and on our backs was smoother. Moving up the embankment used a whole different set of muscles and was exhausting. I'm not sure what used more energy, the subtle, deliberate moves or the adrenaline that it took to anticipate those actions.
We both wiped our brows after getting out of the thick underbrush and back on two feet again. Kilpper noted that our path wasn't the easy way out - no kidding.
With another quick look at the
map for bearing, we arrived at the side of a small dirt road, a vulnerable place to be if a patrol was nearby. Kilpper inched to the edge to see if the coast was clear. It was, and we darted safely across.
After a half mile in the thick brush, we entered a very open, wooded area.
"This is where we'll get caught, if we do," said Kilpper. No matter how delicately we stepped, there was always the snap, crackle and pop of dead twigs echoing through the forest. We used stealth tecniques as best we could through the woods, knowing each step could be our last.
After a painstakingly slow, intense half mile of such movements, we found ourselves about 500 yards from the rendezvous point.
Soon, we reached another suspicious-looking road. Kilpper checked the time, map and GPS coordinates again. We waited and listened.
"We must move now." said Kilpper. With a quick look up and down the road, Kilpper jetted across. I mimicked his movements 10 seconds later. We made three more moves toward the destination, and something caught my eye. I froze in my tracks, heart pounding.
Fifty feet away was a man, dressed in black, face-paint camouflaged, carrying a large rife and closing in on us. He moved faster and quieter than us, or at least me. He told us to lay face-down on the ground. Ten seconds later, he whispered, "We're clear, let's go."
We sprinted in a crouched position as another armed stealth soldier descended upon us to help with cover. Seventy-five fast and frightening yards later, we met with more "friendly forces" hunkered in a small, secluded opening. They scanned the area back-and-forth for any sign of movement.
The intensity of an exercise where you sneak for two to three hours and traverse slightly more than one mile of diverse terrain can't be compared to any other outdoor experience I've had. It also can't be compared to what a pilot in a similar, real-life situation would encounter and the true danger of being exploited by the enemy. Again, I'm just glad I didn't get Kilpper captured.
Appeal-Democrat photograhper Chris Kaufman can be reached at 749-4717. You may e-mail him at email@example.com.