DAY ONE: Reporter's Notebook: Pilots are focused on material
I had a virtual reality visor over my head and I saw myself 2,000 feet above the ground with a parachute on. Below me, in a clearing between the trees, a big red "X" marked the spot I needed to land.
In front of me, Kevin Wagner, a survival, evasion, resistance, escape instructor watched my descent on another monitor and coached me on how to steer the parachute by telling me to pull ropes on my left and right sides.
I landed 87 feet away from my target. Not bad for my first try, I thought. Moments later I watched KCRA reporter Mike Tercell miss his landing spot on an aircraft carrier by more than 100 feet. He sank 100 feet down.
The exercise was a demonstration to show some of the training that U-2 pilots with the 9th Reconnaissance Wing at Beale Air Force base in eastern Yuba County go through before they fly solo missions. But for Majors Blane Kilpper, and Howie Robinson, and Capt. Alex Castro, the training was necessary.
I watched as the three walked around a warehouse-like room with 35-pound pressure suits on as they moved from one training exercise to the other. I could see they were hot inside the suits, but it didn't detract them from training.
Part of their training had them in a U-2 cockpit simulator where they would practice the motions of ejecting from the aircraft. Instructors watched to their side and instructed them on procedures to eject.
The U-2 pilots-in-training took their training very seriously. Their lives depend on it. They sat in the simulators and practiced ejection procedures until they had them down.
Earlier, I watched as they climbed a flight of stairs to a platform, were hooked to harnesses in their pressure suits and moved out on a hoist to simulate being caught in a tree. They detached themselves and then lowered themselves with a special wire to the ground.
I was amazed at how quickly the material was covered and how well these pilots followed along.
The thought of parachuting from the altitudes where these planes fly - above 65,000 feet, or 12 miles above sea level - seems terrifying and tempting at the same time. I try to imagine what the earth looks like from that altitude. The world below must take on a surreal appearance, where large cities like San Francisco appear like small blotches and places like Yuba City are barely noticeable.
Some U-2 pilots I have spoken with say the view is unlike any other that most people will ever see in their lifetimes. Some say they can see the earth's curvature from up there, others say they can't. I think it would be worth the look either way.
I envy these three pilots for taking the chance to fly where no one else in the world can go, except astronauts. What would you do for a chance to fly that high, even just once?
Of course, the downside is the U-2 pilots go on long deployments and fly above dangerous areas.
But these pilots know the work they do could someday soon land on the president's desk. They also know that their work could someday save the lives of soldiers on the ground. That alone makes the work worthwhile.
Appeal-Democrat reporter Daniel Witter can be reached at 749-4712. You may e-mail him at email@example.com.