As Japan copes with the aftermath of the 8.9 magnitude earthquake and tsunami that struck March 11, the United States has sent help in the form of personnel, equipment and a watchful eye in the sky: a U-2 high-altitude, all-weather surveillance and reconnaissance aircraft from the 5th Reconnaissance Squadron here.
In conjunction with an RQ-4 Global Hawk remotely piloted aircraft from the 9th Operations Group’s Detachment 3 at Andersen Air Force Base, Guam, the U-2 has been deployed to capture high-resolution, broad-area synoptic imagery, by using an optical bar camera producing traditional film products which are developed and analyzed after landing
Once the aircraft returns with the film, it will be shipped to Beale AFB, Calif., where experts with the 9th Intelligence Squadron will process and analyze the 10,500 feet of film.
“The broad, synoptic collection of large land mass and littorals are of great benefit to decision makers,” said Lt. Col. Spencer Thomas, the 5th RS commander. “It will aid them in determining locations and extent of damage the earthquake and tsunami have left.”
Colonel Thomas also said the imagery can be likened to X-rays of a medical injury.
“It’s like a personal injury; immediately after the event, one must determine where and how they have been injured,” he said. “Our mission serves that function.”
From start to finish, the mission is expected to take four to five days. Colonel Thomas said once they were notified, it took about 12 hours of planning and preparation to get the plane off the ground.
Staff Sgt. William Ehinger, a U-2 crew chief with the 5th RS, led his team quickly to ensure the aircraft was ready to launch.
“I am proud to be part of the humanitarian mission to help our allies,” he said. “In fact, all Airmen in the 5th RS are proud to be helping out to provide the data Japan needs to rebuild their country.”
Because the U-2 flies at such a high altitude — more than 70,000 feet — the pilot must wear a complete pressure suit similar to those worn by astronauts. This process of preparing the pilot takes a couple hours to complete.
The upload of the camera, which is much larger than a typical camera, weighs about 300 pounds, with the film weighing more than 120 pounds. Six hours later, the aircraft has been prepared.
“These kinds of missions require much, much more than a pilot, an aircraft and a sensor,” Colonel Thomas said. “The extended teamwork associated with this sort of effort reaches across multiple squadrons.”
During this humanitarian assistance and disaster relief mission, Colonel Thomas said everyone involved was keenly focused on the task at hand, as they are in any mission.
“It’s an extended network of Airmen, Americans, reaching out to assist our friends and allies in Japan,” he said. “They’re our friends and we’re going to do whatever we can to help them.”