Every U-2 flight requires a lot of behind-the-scenes work. An assortment of engineers, technicians, and flight line personnel line up to support every mission. The high altitudes at which the Dragon Lady operates, however, create a unique set of responsibilities for ground support personnel. Many of these responsibilities fall on the shoulders of life support technicians.
For almost thirty years, Mark Schroeder has had the responsibility of prepping, maintaining, testing, and inspecting survival equipment for U-2 missions. He has also worked with a variety of pilots, both men and women. Stationed at Site 2 in Palmdale, California, Schroeder gets the opportunity to deploy with the aircraft around the United States. As lead for the four-person life support crew, Schroeder travels to Beale AFB in northern California for meetings with his counterparts. At times, pilots from Beale AFB travel to Site 2 where Schroeder says, “We treat them as our own pilots.”
When younger, Schroeder went into the Air Force and bounced around. He ended up becoming a parachute rigger who worked for the survival school at Edwards AFB, California, and taught pilots how to survive in the desert after an ejection. This shaped Schroeder for the lead position in the life support shop that he holds today. “I fell into this job,” he says. “I didn’t want it at first but I fell in love with it. I was a farm kid who loved airplanes and got a job with Lockheed Martin to avoid the harvest season. It’s interesting working with things that people don’t normally see every day.”
Before suiting-up a pilot for a test flight, Schroeder prepares all components of the escape system by testing the survival kits for functionality, setting the output on oxygen kits, ensuring the parachute is properly packed and ready, preparing the ejection seat, adjusting the harness, and recording instrument readings. Schroeder also checks the spacesuit, and helmet before the final departure.
When pilots arrive at the life support shop to prepare for a flight, they must wear what Schroeder calls, “fancy long johns.” These long johns have special loops on the sleeves that attach to the suit, preventing the sleeves from riding up on a pilot during a flight. The suits also have a hole for the Urinary Collection Device, or UCD. Schroeder jokingly says, “If pilots have more than what the UCD can hold, they shouldn’t land here.”
Once the long johns are in place, Schroeder assists the pilot into a multiple-layer spacesuit. The inner layer of the suit is made of oxford nylon fabric. The first middle layer of the suit is a Gore-Tex bladder. The second middle layer of the suit is a restraint layer Nomex link net. This additional middle layer keeps the Gore-Tex layer from overextending. The outer layer of the suit is Nomex to provide fire protection.
Once Schroeder zips up the suit, he ensures it fits the pilot properly by making adjustments to the laces in the suit. Lastly, Schroeder secures the helmet to the top of the suit and connects the breathing hose to the suit to a supply of pure oxygen. The pilot, with spacesuit on and helmet closed, then sits for an hour in a comfy lounge chair breathing pure oxygen to remove any traces of nitrogen in the blood to reduce the risk of decompression sickness during the upcoming flight.
When the hour is up, Schroeder escorts the pilot to the aircraft in a repurposed delivery truck equipped with a lounge chair in the back for the pilot to sit. Once at the airplane, Schroeder secures the safety devices and pilot for flight. He also ensures that the pilot has a water bottle and food tubes for the flight. Water and food can be consumed during the flight through a small self-sealing hole in the helmet. Schroeder assists U-2 pilots every step of the way because the pressure suit makes moving about difficult for the pilot.
Schroeder says, “My day-to day interaction with the pilots builds good friendships. We have fun when we’re not flying. But when it’s flight day, we are all business.”
Upon flight return, Schroeder helps pilots out of the plane, escorts them back to the shop in the truck, and quickly assists them in removing the various layers of the spacesuits. Schroeder is responsible for cleaning suits. Once washed, the suit layers are hung up to dry for upcoming flights and the cycle repeats.
Without the spacesuit, flying the U-2 above 63,000 feet would be impossible. When exposed to altitudes of that magnitude, pilots have seconds to live because nitrogen in the blood begins to boil. The spacesuit acts as the pilot’s own environment, simulating pressure found at sea level. If the cockpit ever loses pressure, the suit is designed to inflate and act as a backup cockpit. Schroeder says, “The spacesuit is like a personal security blanket for pilots. It gives them that extra sense of comfort.”
Over the years, Schroeder has seen the spacesuit evolve from a tight fitting, heavy, hot, and uncomfortable garment to a loose, lighter, cooler, and more agreeable suit. The suits continually improve based on feedback from pilots and technicians of various organizations.
Lockheed Martin keeps close contact with the spacesuit manufacturer, David Clark. Quarterly, a representative from the manufacturer visits Schroeder’s shop and helps fix or improve any problems or issues with the spacesuits.
Every concern or recommendation is taken into consideration for improvements to future suits. Everything down to the color has an impact. Green, blue, brown, white, and various other colors have been tested. Yellow became the color of choice because it is the coolest and the least reflective than previous colors. The suits weigh thirty-five pounds and come in thirteen sizes. There are approximately 200 in the world, all manufactured by David Clark.
Schroeder makes adjustments and fixes the suits in his own office. He has all of the parts and tools he needs on hand. From screws, to material, to thread, to needles, to sewing machines, Schroeder is ready for any suit malfunction or repair. When touring his office, he proudly remarks, “Yes, I can sew. It’s part of the job requirement.”
Schroeder sends each suit back to the manufacturer to be refreshed every six years. The suits return in new condition. After thirteen years of wear, the suits are sent to the manufacturer for retirement and new suits are purchased for the crew.
Constantly giving tours through his shop, Schroeder is proud to show what he calls, the Wall of Fame. Every pilot who has come through the shop to be suited for a flight is pictured on the wall with an autograph. Schroeder says, “Yeah, the Wall of Fame is cool, but most people are more excited and interested to see the spacesuit itself.”
Schroeder knows every aspect of his job and is passionate about his work. “I love my job. I love the responsibility of keeping the pilots safe and making sure they come back the same way they left because they are my friends.”
Caitlin Barton is a communications representative for Lockheed Martin.