A Q&A with Col Alberto "CRUZER" Cruz

17/08/2020

Hello, I'm back with another Q&A with a retired U-2S pilot, enjoy!

1) What made you want to join the air force?

Answer: My strong desire to become a pilot is the primary reason why I joined the Air Force. I was accepted to both the Air Force Academy and the Naval Academy after High school but I chose the Air Force Academy because I felt it had a stronger aviation focus.

2) What is your favourite moment/experience you've had flying?

Answer: My favourite flying experience hands down has to be the first time I saw the "terminator" while flying a U-2. The "terminator" is also referred to as the "terminator line," "grey line" or "twilight zone." It is the line that separates day and night and from outer space is very distinctive. However, from 70,000' the line is a bit fuzzy and is all around you as you approach it. During my U-2 training I heard about the terminator from some of my instructors. It is hard to describe the view as it does not look anything like you've seen on television from NASA footage. Nevertheless, my first experience seeing one was truly breath-taking. Throughout my U-2 career I had the opportunity to see many terminators. Some day turning to night and others night turning to day. I distinctly remember the day I was going to see 2 terminators on 2 sortie. I was scheduled to fly a long enough sortie taking off 50 minutes before sunrise and landing after sunset. Unfortunately, my aircraft had a minor maintenance issue that delayed my take-off by an hour and I missed seeing the first terminator. I knew that was probably the only time I would get an opportunity for a double terminator. I was terribly disappointed but after seeing the terminator on my way home from a very long, exhausting mission my disappointment turned into contentment as I knew no-one else had the view I had at that very moment. 

3) What is your worst moment/experience you've had flying?

Answer: My worst experience while flying has to be the time I flew an entire U-2 sortie while feeling extremely nauseous. Early in my U-2 career I learned you should never ever fly the Dragon Lady if you feel sick or slightly sick. The reason is because even though the cabin is pressurized it is only pressurized  to 30,000' (while flying at 70'000). In comparison most commercial aircraft are pressurized between 6.000' to 8,000'. In the U-2 you're breathing 100% oxygen the entire flight but your body is at 30,000' (higher than Mt. Everest) for 10 plus hours. So U-2 pilots are uniquely susceptible to decompression sickness (DCS) like the bends because gases we have in our bodies like nitrogen expand and cause sharp pain. Now imagine if you feel a little bit under the weather on the ground how that feeling is multiplied if you are at 30'000 cabin pressure. On that particular sortie I felt absolutely fine on the ground. However, one hour after take-off I began to feel sick. I had an upset stomach and I had a strong desire to vomit but there was no way to open my massive pressure suit helmet visor and and tilt it down at the right angle to be able to collect my vomit. Usually we train our U-2 pilots to terminate the mission early in the event they do not feel good. However, on this particular night, I was supporting a Marine unit that eventually got into some heavy combat so I decided to tough it out and complete the mission. What made my flight even worse was the higher than usual high-altitude turbulence and on my return to base numerous thunderstorms around the airfield that shook me around the entire sortie. It was not a pleasant experience at all and it was determined post flight that the water bottles I had in my cockpit may have been cleaned with soap by a new technician. This was probably what caused me to feel nauseous an hour after take-off.

4) What is your favourite plane and why?

Answer: My favourite airplane to fly has to be the U-2 Dragon Lady. From an engineering point of view the U-2 is an amazing aircraft capable of flying at incredible altitudes with the most advanced intelligence gathering equipment in the world. I wholeheartedly believe in the mission it supports which has shaped US intelligence collection for over 65 years. But the primary reason I have enjoyed flying the U-2 over any other aircraft is because of how difficult it is to fly. It is such a challenge (mostly during landings). Flying an overpowered glider with bicycle landing gear that has to be stalled for landing while wearing a full pressure suit (almost identical to what space shuttle pilots wear) is beyond ridiculous. 

5) Did you prefer flying the chase car or flying the jet?

Answer: I preferred flying the U-2 over driving the chase car. Yes, driving at over 100mph (sometimes as fast as 120 or so) trying to get into the right position behind the U-2 was exhilarating. But that did not come close to the feeling of a 1,000' take-off roll, or the incredible climb rate to 70,000' or the challenging stalled landings on bicycle landing gear.

Well, that's all for this week. Thank you very much for reading!

Cheers!