ONE: flight of the Ultra Lord

RAF FAIRFORD, United Kingdom --
ONE: flight of the ultra lord (U.S. Air Force graphic by Staff Sgt. Jarad A. Denton/Released)
 
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A cocksure smile spread across his face, as eyes that had seen thousands of miles while staring beyond the curvature of the earth seemed to twinkle in the mid-morning sun. Slowly, the "Ultra Lord" leaned back in his chair as a medical technician checked his blood pressure - a necessary precaution.

"Basically the plan is we fly north until it turns into south," he chuckled. "And then we fly south until we get where we are going."

Known in the sky as Ultra Lord, U.S. Air Force Maj. Cory Bartholomew has been strapping in and piloting the U-2 Dragon Lady for more than 20 years. He affectionately describes her as a "remarkable aircraft."

"The U-2 flies fairly normally from 10 feet on up," Bartholomew continued, as he smoothly stepped into his pressure suit. "Because of the long wingspan it flies more like a heavy aircraft than a light one."
U.S. Air Force Maj. Cory Bartholomew, U-2 Dragon Lady pilot from the 9th Reconnaissance Wing, discusses the difficulties of landing an aircraft on its rear wheel at RAF Fairford, United Kingdom, June 6, 2014. After more than 20 years as a U-2 pilot, Bartholomew is scheduled to retire October 2014. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Jarad A. Denton/Released) U.S. Air Force Maj. Cory Bartholomew, U-2 Dragon Lady pilot from the 9th Reconnaissance Wing, slips on his specially-designed pressure suit at RAF Fairford, United Kingdom, June 6, 2014. The suit is worn to help U-2 pilots handle the high-altitude flights with minimal physical impact. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Jarad A. Denton/Released)
 
Coaxing the Dragon Lady to dizzying heights above 70,000 feet provides Bartholomew with a unique perspective on the world below. Sometimes he sees land and sea, other times the view is great banks of fleecy clouds, he said.

"There may not be a lot of scenery on this flight," he said, nonchalantly. "It may all look like clouds and glaciers."

While the world below may seem small and beautiful when he drives the Dragon Lady, Bartholomew said the return of grounded reality is always a skipped heartbeat away. Because of its unique design, the U-2 must literally stall herself before landing on the rear wheel.

"Every other airplane you fly, you land with flying speed on your main gear," Bartholomew said. "With the U-2 you have to actually hold her off the ground until the wings stop producing any lift at all, so you can land on the tail wheel."

He paused and smiled again while adjusting parts of his suit.
U.S. Air Force Maj. Cory Bartholomew, U-2 Dragon Lady pilot from the 9th Reconnaissance Wing, adjusts his helmet during pre-flight procedures at RAF Fairford, United Kingdom, June 6, 2014. Both the helmet and pressure suit worn by U-2 pilots must be properly fitted to ensure maximum functionality. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Jarad A. Denton/Released)
 

"It's a challenge to learn to do that, while you're trying to maintain that one-to-two foot altitude," he said. "I tell the guys it's easy, all you have to do is hold the airplane at 18 inches off the ground, plus or minus six. We like to give people some wiggle room."

Bartholomew laughed as two Airmen moved to assist him into the upper-portion of his pressure suit. Cutting an impressive figure, reminiscent of a Mercury Seven astronaut, he lets out an audible sign - knowing his days behind the stick will all-too-soon be over.

"I'm only going to be allowed to do this for another five months," he said, sadly. "The Air Force has set a retirement date for me of Halloween 2014."

Bartholomew paused, visibly holding back the emotion in eyes.

"I think I'll miss everything about it," he said. "Some people are uncomfortable in a space suit, but I'm not. The aircraft itself is a challenge, but I have enjoyed that and I will miss flying. In the Air Force you work with some of the finest people you will ever meet - obviously I'm going to miss that. I think it's unlikely I'm going to find something to do after the Air Force that will give me the same sense of satisfaction I feel when I fly the U-2."

Despite bittersweet feelings toward his retirement, Bartholomew feels nothing but overwhelming pride toward the Dragon Lady and her mission for his country - scoffing at those who disparage the U-2 because of its age.

"People assume that because the U-2 has been in the news since the 50s that it is the same airplane," he said. "That is quite far from the truth. The U-2 of today is an entirely new aircraft; it's a better tool for the job than it's ever been."

Bartholomew continued, saying just because something is old doesn't mean it needs to be thrown away.

"A fork hasn't changed its shape in forever," he said. "But the fork still works, so why would you change it? The basic shape of the U-2 hasn't changed either, but the engine is new, the cockpit is new and the equipment we carry is all state-of-the-art."

These quintessential upgrades have allowed the Dragon Lady to expand her role as a high-altitude, all-weather surveillance and reconnaissance aircraft that can operate any time - day or night.

"We are doing more and we are doing newer things," Bartholomew said. "We are getting more information to the troops quicker than ever before. It's a better tool for the job than it has ever been. It's not a 'Cold War relic' as I've heard it described."

Once more, Bartholomew flashed his trademarked grin as his helmet set snugly over his head and air flowed into the pressure suit with an audible hiss. Confidently, with the strength and determination of men half his age, he rose from his chair and walked proudly out into the sun toward his Dragon Lady - ready to chase the daylight on blackened steel wings.

U.S. Air Force Maj. Cory Bartholomew, U-2 Dragon Lady pilot from the 9th Reconnaissance Wing, looks over his aircraft before a flight at RAF Fairford, United Kingdom, June 6, 2014. Bartholomew, who is set to retire October 2014, said it will be difficult to find something to do that is as satisfying as piloting the Dragon Lady. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Jarad A. Denton/Released) U.S. Air Force Maj. Cory Bartholomew, U-2 Dragon Lady pilot from the 9th Reconnaissance Wing, climbs into the cockpit of his aircraft before taking flight at RAF Fairford, United Kingdom, June 6, 2014. Bartholomew, who is set to retire October 2014, has been piloting the Dragon Lady for more than 20 years. A U-2 Dragon Lady takes off on from RAF Fairford, United Kingdom, June 6, 2014. While the exterior of the Dragon Lady looks the same as it did decades ago, the interior has been completely modernized to meet the ever-growing needs of the U.S. Air Force. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Jarad A. Denton/Released)