Carl Trout, who flew the legendary Lockheed U-2 reconnaissance aircraft for a dozen years, will present about his career and experiences in the cockpit of the Dragon Lady on Thursday, January 20, at 7 p.m. as part of the EAA Aviation Museum Aviation Adventure Speaker Series.
Carl’s interest in aviation began at the age of 14 when he received a ride in an Ercoupe, and he would go on to earn his private pilot certificate a few years later. While attending Indiana State University, Carl began earning advanced ratings at ISU’s flight school and upon graduation joined the U.S. Air Force in 1981, which was actively recruiting for pilots at the time. Beginning with the T-37 Tweet at Vance Air Force Base in Oklahoma, Carl’s 20-year career as an Air Force pilot was underway. He soon advanced to the supersonic T-38 Talon and then graduated from Air Force flight training, getting assigned to the massive B-52 Stratofortress strategic bomber despite the opportunity to fly fighters based on the excellent marks he received during training.
Carl flew B-52s out of Ellsworth Air Force Base in South Dakota for three-and-a-half years before instructing in T-38s for four years in Texas. At this point, Carl was thinking about getting out of the Air Force and had already begun submitting job applications to various airlines. But then a friend who Carl had met flying B-52s invited him to come out to California to try his hand at flying the U-2.
“With the U-2, it’s a totally voluntary force,” Carl explained. “They can’t make you do that. I thought just for fun, I’ll go out there. You get to fly the two-seat trainer model three times and that’s part of the interview process. You could accept the job if they hire you or just turn around and walk away. … That was in the summer of ’89 that I went out to California to see if I could try and fly this darn thing and I stayed for 12 years.”
Developed by Lockheed for the CIA in the 1950s, the existence of the U-2 was a highly guarded secret for a number of years. The aircraft was developed for high-altitude, all-weather intelligence gathering and was thought to be invulnerable against enemy aircraft and missiles, though the Soviet Union put an end to that notion in 1960 when it shot down Gary Powers in his U-2C with a surface-to-air missile. Eventually the U.S. Air Force began operating the U-2 for reconnaissance purposes and through numerous upgrades, the aircraft has remained a key asset for intelligence gathering despite being nearly a 70-year-old design.
Often regarded as one of the more difficult U.S. Air Force aircraft to fly, Carl said the Dragon Lady certainly lives up to that reputation, especially when it comes to landing.
“It’s a real handful,” Carl said of the U-2. “It is considered by Edwards [Air Force Base Air Force Test Center] to be the hardest aircraft to fly well. … It can just kick your butt at any moment. There are a lot of reasons why. But basically it’s considered an uncontrollable aircraft because it’s not dynamically stable in any axis. If you put in one input, it requires another input. You’re constantly on the stick and rudder. It wants to fly, so the way you land it is you basically stall it. The tail lands first and it’s sort of a hard thing to describe, but if you’ve ever seen one land, it’s pretty awkward-looking. … The whole time I flew it, I don’t think I ever was truly comfortable in the landing. You were always ready because it’s going to do something you never expected.”
Over his 12 years flying the U-2, Carl flew missions all across the world, gathering intelligence for the U.S. government. He pointed out that the airplane is as busy as ever and has survived so long not only because of how effective it is, but because of its versatility.
“[Versatility] is one of the reasons why the U-2 has survived. A lot of planes that were built to replace the U-2 are in a museum now. The U-2 is still working. It’s flying more now than it ever has. Everybody wants us because it’s so versatile. We can be anywhere in the world within 48 hours. You can’t do that with a satellite, it takes days to move it around and that’s even if you have the fuel to move it. There’s just no other aircraft that can be that versatile and we have such range.”
In 2001, Carl retired from the Air Force as a lieutenant colonel. He then flew with Southwest Airlines for two decades, retiring this past September.
Thursday’s event is free for EAA members and youths 5 and under, and just $5 for non-members.