Former U-2 pilot Kevin Henry recently told U.S. News about his near brush with death during an otherwise routine operation 70,000 feet over Afghanistan last year. He was flying out of Beale Air Force Base in California. Here is his account:
"With the U-2, like any high-altitude aircraft, you are always susceptible to nitrogen sickness—basically the bends. That's what happened to me. On March 11, 2006, I was on an [Operation Enduring Freedom] mission on a standard nine-hour collection mission. Three hours in, I start getting symptoms—it was extreme headaches and then sudden, unexplained fatigue. There were a lot of things that saved my life that day with all the U-2 capabilities we have now.
"I was over Afghanistan when this happened. It would have taken 3½ hours just to drive home [to California] at this point. When you're on the tip of the spear and you think the mission is important, you tend to push a little too hard because you believe in what you're doing. Once I started getting those symptoms, I talked them away as old age. I started flying the jet in '87. You don't want the young guys to see you sweat.
"Then, the nitrogen bubbles went to my brain and started closing off my frontal lobe. I could only do basic flight skills. It was difficult to operate the display controls because it cut off some brain functions.
"One of my good friends was the squadron commander, who was talking me down from a world away. Then several Mirage [fighter jet] pilots intercepted me in a fully stalled position. I was in the descent at about 16,000 feet somewhere, when I lost radio contact, probably unconscious.
"I tried to follow the Mirages. I don't remember too much after that. I followed them for 45 minutes over the airfield. Then, I was in a full stall. I woke up with Dave [the squadron commander] yelling at me—300 feet off the ground aimed at one of the aircraft shelters. Then I got a ground rush and just instinctively from training was able to recover. My wingtip got within 5 feet of the ground. I did get an adrenaline rush from that.
"I wasn't scared, I was confused. They were flying around, trying to show me where the runway was, which was very dangerous for them. But after that incident, I did clear up enough to land without going off the runway.
"They did reinstate me five months later. I had a second incident on a training flight, then hung up the spurs."
Henry, who has since retired from the military, is still involved with the U-2 program as a trainer at Beale. He says that pilots are increasingly reporting symptoms of the bends because the flight schedule today is so intense. "It's happening more now because we're flying longer missions," he says, noting that most pilots fly two missions as long as 12 hours each week. At other times, they are supervising the flights of other pilots or doing other ground duties.