A crippled U-2 aircraft, damaged during depot maintenance in California four years ago, is now at Robins for assessment and possible repair. The vaunted “Dragon Lady,” for more than 50 years a high altitude reconnaissance mainstay, suffered burns and structural damage during an on-board fire. The aircraft, 63-feet long with a wingspan of 105 feet, arrived disassembled at Robins by truck on Friday.
Some 100 workers at Robins form the U-2 system program office and oversee the worldwide care and feeding of the 32-aircraft U-2 fleet. But maintenance on the fabled spy plane has never been performed at the local installation.
Col. Fred Kennedy, the U-2 system program manager at Robins, said contractors at the Palm Dale, Calif., facility have assessed the damage and offered a repair price.
“But given the fiscal environment we’re in today, we decided to take another look and see if we had any innovative ways to get this done,” Kennedy said Friday afternoon. “As it turns out, the folks at Robins might be able to do this a little more cost effectively. We’ll let them take a look and if they do, we’ll give them a shot.” He declined to provide the repair price offered by the California source.
Col. Tim Molnar, 402nd Aircraft Maintenance Group commander at Robins, said the opportunity to work on the “Dragon Lady” is a great honor.
“The U-2 is a piece of history,” he pointed out during a brief Friday press conference. “It was first designed and flown during the Eisenhower administration.”
Molnar said when word leaked that an opportunity to work on the U-2 might come about, there was no shortage of volunteers.
“My phone was ringing off the hook,” he said. “I had more than 100 people who volunteered – mechanics, electricians, engineers. Hopefully, we can show we’re the best value for the Air Force and they will turn to us to put it back together.”
Molnar conceded that Robins did not have U-2 experts per se, but said the work required should be straight forward.
“We do have the world’s finest aircraft maintainers,” he said. “They are steeped in sheetmetal, electronic and engineering experience. This is fundamental maintenance. We have great discipline and compliance and we are going to step up smartly.”
The veteran maintenance officer could not project how long the assessment will take and the likely price tag for total repair. He said his maintainers would need a chance to check the aircraft carefully before making those judgments.
“The assessment could be measured in single digit weeks,” he said. “That will tell us the cost of the repair and how long it will take.”
The U-2 remains a critical asset and the damaged aircraft now at Robins is the newest airframe in the fleet, coming off the production line in the late 1980s. After several attempts to retire the U-2 in favor of satellites and other unmanned systems, Air Force leaders have decided to retain the spy workhorse for the foreseeable future.
“We’ve been directed to look at flying the U-2 past 2025,” Kennedy reported. “So we’ve reinvigorated the program. We have a strategic roadmap for how to move forward and we’re working with our folks at the Pentagon.”
The “Dragon Lady” continues to perform yeoman service in Southwest Asia. Even it’s wet film capability fills a useful niche since the latest digital systems do not offer the same resolution.
“I can’t comment on what it can see and how we’re using it,” Kennedy said, “but it’s a fantastic asset and it’s doing amazing intelligence work for us.”
Given the few U-2 airframes and the replacement cost – several hundred million per airplane according to Kennedy – the Robins project has top priority. Molnar is confident that Robins can provide the service required.
“We don’t have to hire any additional trained personnel,” he stressed. “That expertise is here today and we have the facilities, the will and the knowhow. So I think we’re postured for success if the program office chooses us.”