Skip to comments.Killer at 70,000 Feet
Posted on 04/05/2012 1:28:58 AM PDT by U-238
U.S. Air Force Lieutenant Colonel Kevin Henry thought the tiny red dots on his skin were insect bites. But as he relaxed at a Florida beach house with a fellow pilot on a day off in 1990, he noticed he was the only one getting bitten. Henry wouldnt learn until later that the dots were capillaries breaking under the strain of nitrogen bubbles that had formed during his latest flight in a Lockheed U-2 spyplane, 10 hours earlier. He would find out the hard way how much worse it could get.
Henry had been flying the U-2 since 1987, and has seen it go from flying over South Korea and Panama to being a constant presence over battlefields in Afghanistan and, until last year, Iraq. Like most others in the elite club of U-2 pilots (there are only 35 to 50 actively flying at any time), Henry is tough and matter-of-fact, but also somewhat romantic about flying the famous jet at 70,000 feet, twice the cruising altitude of commercial airlinershigh enough to see the curvature of Earth.
But flying so high has a cost. The dots that Henry saw on his skin and the itching, crawling sensation that he felt were just a couple of the symptoms of altitude-induced decompression sickness. Most people know DCS by its common name, the bends, a condition suffered by divers who rise too quickly from the high pressure at depth to the lower pressure near the waters surface. (In medical terms, bends refers only to the DCS sufferers joint pain.)
Pilots can experience the same physical reactions by flying up into the thin air at high altitudes. U-2 pilots are especially at risk, not just because of their extreme altitude but also because their cockpits are only partially pressurized.
(Excerpt) Read more at airspacemag.com ...
Wow. I would never have guessed that pilots could get the bends.
Whether coming up from a deep dive or leaving the surface of the earth and going high, it’s the same....it’s decompression that causes the bends.
I’ll add another: caissons disease.
I recently learned that there were more than 500 cases of the bends in NYC subway construction. Underground shifts had to be very limited (I forget the exact time... but I think it was under one hour).
Gotta flush the nitrogen from your body before you go on a high altitude flight.
Yikes! My company had a woman speak about her expedition to the top of Everest. She said at 29,000 feet, even with oxygen bottles, it was very hard to move one foot forward. You have to move the foot, stop for a minute and pant, then move the other foot forward one step. I can't imagine the difficulty of being a high performance pilot at a pressure equivalent of 29k feet.
Yet many elite climbers like Ed Viesturs have climbed many 8000 meter peaks including Everest without O2.
I’d have thought that the AF would have figured it out pretty quickly and got the pilots on gas. Maybe they should’ve asked the Navy...
They either need to pressurize the cabin or we need to replace the U-2 with a UAV.
Thanks for the ping. The U-2 should have been replaced by the Global Hawk.
Of course. the current Google Earth view is far sharper -- with four U-2s and a Global Hawk out on the apron and another U-2 and a smaller drone on a pad between the hangars...
And, (see my #14) the folks at Beale have had the opportunity to compare the systems (literally) side-by side -- right there on the same apron....
Yes, I know the decision has been made to quit the Global Hawk and keep the U-2.
I saw a History Channel show that said the bends were discovered when it hit workers working on the caissons for the Brooklyn Bridge. This wikipedia site:
gives a slightly more detailed history.
They are cancelling the Global Hawk program for the U-2.