Published in Midwest Flyer – February/March 2019 issue
On January 31, 1980, U.S. Air Force pilot, Captain Edward I. Beaumont of Brantwood, Wisconsin, was on a training flight flying the U-2 Spy Plane near Oroville, California. He was in the early stages of check-out at Beale Air Force Base, having made his first trip in the U-2CT only nine days earlier. This day, he was flying one of the last single-seat U-2C models remaining in Air Force service (they were retired a few months later).
Capt. Beaumont performed a number of touch-and-go’s, and then climbed out for some work at medium altitude. After this, he reported descending through 14,000 feet. Sometime later, his mobile control officer on the ground at Beale was surprised to hear Beaumont key the microphone, but make no transmission. Instead, all that could be heard was a heavy breathing sound as the U-2 pilot’s transmitter remained open, but silent. The tower was alerted, and a T-37 trainer that was also flying locally, was instructed to rendezvous with the errant U-2 and try to attract Beaumont’s attention.
As the two pilots in the T-37 drew alongside, they could hardly believe their eyes. Capt. Beaumont appeared to be slumped at the controls, with the aircraft in a gentle, turning descent. Beaumont had had a catatonic seizure, and was completely unconscious. With the accompanying pilots in the T-37 powerless to intervene, the U-2 floated slowly towards the Sierra foothills north of Oroville. As it neared the sloping ground, some high-voltage power transmission lines barred the way. The T-37 pilots braced themselves for a searing explosion as the black airframe flew into the 230,000-kilovolt wires. The explosion never came.
Incredibly, the U-2 clipped the bottom two wires with a wingtip, but failed to incinerate. In fact, the contact with the powerlines had the effect of rolling the aircraft into the correct attitude for a forced landing in an adjacent cow pasture. Had its wingtip not been flipped up in this way, the aircraft would have cartwheeled as it impacted the gently sloping terrain with one wing low. As the astonished T-37 pilots orbited overhead, the U-2 flopped into the muddy field and ground to a halt with the engine still running. Fuel began spilling from a ruptured tank, but it ran downhill and therefore failed to ignite.
The sudden jolt of hitting the ground revived Captain Beaumont, and although confused, he managed to shut the engine down. But the drama wasn’t yet over. As the still-groggy Beaumont began to extricate himself from the aircraft, his foot slipped and got caught in the D-ring of the ejection seat, which he had failed to make safe. It fired through the canopy, flinging
him upwards with it. Captain Beaumont’s body did a somersault, but he landed on his feet to one side of the aircraft, while the seat thudded into the ground nearby. His only injury was a chipped tooth!
When the preliminary accident report was circulated, Strategic Air Command generals and Lockheed managers alike thought that someone had made up the whole story as a joke. Not surprisingly, Captain Beaumont was scrubbed from the U-2 program on medical grounds.The U-2C he was flying is now mounted on a pylon at Beale Air Force Base in Marysville, Calif., and Captain Beaumont, 71, is back living in his hometown of Brantwood, Wisconsin.
About the U-2 Spy Plane
The first flight of the U-2 occurred at Groom Lake (Area 51) on August 1, 1955, during what was only intended to be a high-speed taxi run. The sailplane-like wings were so efficient that the aircraft jumped into the air at 70 knots (81 mph); the aircraft entered service in 1957.
U-2D s/n 56-6714 was one of 86 aircraft built by Lockheed Corp in Burbank, Calif. It was originally built as a U-2A and was subsequently modified to U-2B, then U2C and finally U-2D.
The Lockheed U-2 “Dragon Lady” is a single-seat, single-engine, very high-altitude reconnaissance aircraft operated by the U.S. Air Force (USAF) and previously flown by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). It provides day and night, very high-altitude (70,000 feet), all-weather intelligence gathering. The aircraft is also used for electronic sensor research and development, satellite calibration, and satellite data validation.
The U-2 has an empty weight of 14,300 lbs. and a maximum gross weight of 40,000 lbs. Maximum speed is 500 mph; its cruise speed is 429 mph. The aircraft has a range of 6,405 miles, a maximum ceiling of 70,000 feet, and can climb at 15,000 feet per minute.