U-2 Pilot Helps GA Pilot In Distress


A GA pilot with an engine failure got some help from on high last week. The unidentified pilot lost his engine over Lake Berryessa, about 40 miles west of Sacramento, California, on Feb. 8, and he lost communication to air traffic control. But the distress call caught the attention of a U-2 Dragon Lady pilot about 70,000 feet above him. “I was climbing to altitude on a high sortie and about 20 minutes after takeoff I heard a mayday call from a civilian aircraft that was experiencing engine trouble over Lake Berryessa and was looking for a spot to land,” a 99th Reconnaissance Squadron pilot identified only as Maj. Heatherman said in a news release from his base at Beale Air Force Base near Sacramento. “I relayed this call to the supervisor of flying at Beale and to Oakland air traffic control to see if they knew about it.”

Controllers at Travis Air Force Base, about 30 miles south of the lake, knew about the emergency but had lost contact and that turned Heatherton’s spy plane into a radio relay station. “Due to the altitude of the civilian aircraft, Travis AFB was not able to hear or see them on their radar,” Heatherman said. “As a U-2 pilot, I was flying twice as high [as] most airliners, so I had a very good line of sight with my radios.” He relayed communications between the pilot and controllers. The pilot found a field to land in and wasn’t hurt. A Beale spokesman said his team was happy to help. “There is a common bond among all pilots, whether military or civilian,” said Maj. Dudderar, Beale’s 1st RS supervisor of flying. “We all will lend a hand if we can help in a difficult situation.”

Russ Niles
Russ Niles is Editor-in-Chief of AVweb. He has been a pilot for 30 years and joined AVweb 22 years ago. He and his wife Marni live in southern British Columbia where they also operate a small winery.

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  1. Um … excuse me but there’s sumting wong with this story? I’m intimately familiar with this area … I learned to fly at Beale AFB and frequently flew over this area. A GA airplane with engine failure over Lake Berryessa too low to have line of sight com or radar is seeking ATC help instead of looking for a place to attempt an emergency landing. By the time the U-2 pilot did all that, the GA airplane would have been on the ground, I’d think? And what did the GA pilot think ATC was going to do for him/her … hold their hand? There’s got to me more to this story? And Beale AFB isn’t in Sacramento … it’s in Marysville. Maybe the U-2 pilot was lost, too?

    • …”And what did the GA pilot think ATC was going to do for him/her … hold their hand?”

      Im guessing, just a shot in the dark though – that maybe it might be a good idea to let ATC know where you are and that if you are having trouble and if you go down it might be a good thing for them to send help to your location. Probably a silly guess but my guess none the less….

      • This brings up another interesting thought I’ve never had a reason to delve into. IF you had ADS-B and squawked 7700, are there any areas in the US where there isn’t necessarily radar coverage but might have a ground station covering it. I find it hard to believe that in this area of the coast range of NoCal that there wouldn’t be some sort of coverage. AND … another reason to be carrying a Garmin InReach emergency box. Finally, maybe the “in” boxes displaying traffic ought to have some way to ‘hear’ a 7700 squawk and cause something to bring it to a nearby pilot’s attention. I’d think that’d be easy to do?

        • Any areas? Absolutely. I declared on 121.5 and 7700 over PA one afternoon with an engine out.

          During the glide to a nearby runway Binghampton Approach had replied had done the “how many souls on board bit” and I was gliding along. As I dropped among the mountain tops Binghampton offered – “You are dropping below my radar cover – squawk VFR, frequency change approved, good luck”…..

          Fortunately a PA State Trooper in his helio had picked up on the situation and worked directly with me to monitor the rest of the glide. (and I made the runway).

          I would also surmise that if you can’t use an airway below a certain altitude on an IFR plan – it’s because the radar coverage is not complete.

          Now here is a gotcha. If the USA had insisted on using the full ADSB spec for all aircraft including the upward looking 1090ES that satellites can see – then a lot of the holes would be filled in. But most of us “got away with” 978UAT. Which can only be picked up by a ground station (and other aircraft) and is line of sight. The holes remain.

        • ADS-B “rule airspace” begins at 10,000 feet. There is typically coverage in most places down to 5000, but “typical” and “most” still leaves a lot of airspace unmonitored. The ultimate solution is an ADS-B receiver network in orbit, looking down.

    • And to add Lake Berryessa is 37 SM west of Sacramento. Go 100 SM west and you are 8 miles out over the pacific ocean.

  2. I’m based at KDWA, about 15 NM east of Lake Berryessa. There are large areas around here where there is zero ADS-B coverage below 3000′, extending inland from the coast around Point Reyes all the way to Sacramento and southeast toward Stockton. Given the number of GA aircraft flying around here at or below 3000′ I continue to be surprised that that hasn’t changed.

    As for ATC coverage, I’ve had Travis Approach lose me over Berryessa below 3500′, so that doesn’t surprise me either.

    There are actually several good landing spots surrounding the lake, but most of them would have you hiking a long way to a ride. I’d want to be in contact with ATC for that reason alone, even if I knew I had a place made.

  3. As an aside: What are we doing still flying the U-2?

    Isn’t it a Spy Plane?

    Did it stay near Beale? Or did it fly to Indio? (Or the US/Canadian border?)

    I was told years ago (at an airshow) by an Air Force PR kid that we didn’t need the SR-71 Spy Plane anymore because satellites were so good.

    • As I was stationed at Beale AFB, I can answer that. The SR-71’s were a great platform to do their work but VERY costly to operate. I’m sure the USAF did not want to divest itself of that asset but budgetary constraints on several fronts conspired to seal its fate in the 90’s. The U-2 has been upgraded many times over all the 60+ years and is still a viable AND affordable asset. There are times when satellites just won’t work and the U-2 fills some of those gaps. I suppose the U-2’s was monitoring the same frequency so he stepped in to help?

      • Thanks. The U-2 Pilot said that he was “on a high sortie.” Never having been in the Military, I don’t know if that lingo includes a training flight, or if it implies a working (spying) flight.