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U-2 Spy Plane Still Flying High December 16, 2011

One of the oldest planes the United States Air Force still flies is used to carry out some of America’s most sensitive and critical missions. Whether it’s aiding NATO troops in Afghanistan, providing surveillance over North Korea or examining Japan’s hurricane ravaged coast, the high altitude U-2 keeps flying despite initial plans to retire it by the end of this year.

It requires a lot of skill and technology to get a pilot above 21,000 meters where the U-2 snaps critical images and gathers intelligence.

One hour prior to takeoff, the pilot begins inhaling pure oxygen to cut the risk of decompression sickness.

Major Colby Kuhns of the U.S. Air Force 5th Reconnaissance “Blackcats” squadron said it is like being atop Mount Everest.

“I haven’t had any decompression problems, so that’s good. But we are susceptible to it. Guys who start getting those symptoms will feel pain in their joints and it could get worse than that,” said Kuhns.

Landing the spy plane, nicknamed Dragon Lady, also requires unique abilities.

The pilot, sometimes finishing a grueling flight of up to 12 hours, has poor forward visibility in the cockpit. Because the wide-winged jet has an unusual bicycle-type landing gear, a second pilot in a very fast car on the runway chases each landing, radioing observations to his colleague in the cockpit to help him maintain a full stall at precisely 60 centimeters off the ground.

VOA – S.L. Herman

A closeup view of the U-2 cockpit instrumentation, Osan Air Base, South Korea, Dec. 7, 2011

When the U-2s return from flights, the Blackcats’ maintenance team, overseen by Lieutenant Danielle Rogowski, tracks about 150 items on the jet that need to be replaced at certain intervals.

“Flying at that high an altitude, you do a significant amount of wear and tear on the aircraft and, a lot of these components, with the temperature changes and temperature extremes, puts a lot of pressure on them,” said Rogowski.

The first U-2 took to the skies in 1955. Originally, the Air Force provided the squadron commanders and logistical support while the Central Intelligence Agency supplied operations officers, pilots and mission planners. A newer version, 40 percent larger than the original U-2, was produced in the 1980s. In the 1990s, U-2s were outfitted with new engines.

Major Carl Maymi, sitting in the cockpit prior to a low altitude training session in a relatively new U-2 built in the 1980s, points out the U.S. Air Force also still has bombers from the 1950s.

“So by other Air Force weapons systems standards it is relatively new. You can take a look at the inside of the cockpit and the wiring throughout the jet, the motor and especially the sensors we have on board. hat stuff is all state of the art. It’s advanced. So I feel real comfortable with an aircraft that is technically 50-plus years old,” said Maymi.

One reason the U-2 was designed to fly very high was to avoid being shot down. But that is precisely what happened in 1960 when a Soviet missile struck one of the spy planes.

USAF 5th Reconnaissance Squadron

A high-altitude view from the U-2 cockpit (Undated)

Pilot Francis Gary Powers, whose CIA U-2 was recovered nearly intact, was captured. He was put on trial in Moscow and convicted of espionage.

In addition to the traditional Cold War era intelligence missions, U-2s also now provide real-time assistance to troops in combat zones, such as Afghanistan.

“It’s evolved as it’s needed to evolve. It is cutting edge right now and very well could go out into the future, if necessary,” said Kuhns.

Its future has been questionable for some time. The Defense Department, five years ago, intended to begin retiring the fleet. But Congress insisted the spy plane stay aloft until unmanned reconnaissance aircraft are capable of taking over its critical missions.

The Air Force now says that will happen in 2015 when the Global Hawk RQ-4 drones can assume the U-2s missions – some 60 years after the venerable spy plane first took to the skies.

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China supports Pakistan in row over Nato border attack November 28, 2011

China has lent diplomatic support to Pakistan, saying it is “deeply shocked” over the deaths of the Pakistani soldiers bombarded by Nato helicopters.

Beijing’s support came as Afghan officials again claimed the air strikes were called in after they were first targeted from the Pakistani side of the border.

Warning of “serious consequences”, the Pakistan military said the “unprovoked” attack on a border checkpoint in the Mohmand part of the tribal area on Saturday continued even after it contacted Nato to plead for the firing to stop. The military has not accepted Nato’s explanation for what the coalition has called a “tragic incident”. Afghan and Nato officials have insisted that they came under fire first.

The incident, which left 24 Pakistani soldiers dead, has thrown the coalition strategy in Afghanistan into crisis, with Pakistani co-operation considered vital in stabilising the country and bringing the Taliban insurgents into talks. Pakistan keeps more than 100,000 soldiers stationed along the Afghan border, supposedly in support of the coalition mission.

On Saturday, Pakistan closed the border for supplies to Nato troops in Afghanistan. There is no indication when the border crossing will be re-opened. Half the supplies to coalition soldiers pass by land through Pakistan, including most of the fuel supplies, using local transport companies. On Monday, the All Pakistan Oil Tanker Owners Association said it would only resume transport if Islamabad and the Pakistani military accepted an apology for the incident.

The prime minister, Yousaf Raza Gilani, said Pakistan would “revisit engagement with Nato and the International Security Assistance Force” following the casualties in Mohmand, the deadliest such incident since coalition forces entered Afghanistan in 2001.

Pakistan has suggested it may now boycott the 5 December international conference on Afghanistan’s future at Bonn, in Germany.

Islamabad considers Beijing to be its closest ally and an alternative partner to Washington and the west. China and Pakistan both oppose US plans to have bases in Afghanistan beyond the 2014 date for ending the coalition’s combat operations there.

“China is deeply shocked by these events, and expresses strong concern for the victims and profound condolences to Pakistan,” a Chinese foreign ministry spokesman, Hong Lei, said.

“China believes that Pakistan’s independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity should be respected and the incident should be thoroughly investigated and be handled properly.”

On Monday, the Organisation of Islamic Conference also condemned the attack on the check post, while over the weekend Turkey promised to raise the issue at Nato headquarters in Brussels.

There were further protests on the streets of Pakistan on Monday, including a boycott of the courts by lawyers. The striking lawyers in Karachi and Lahore chanted “Go America, go”.

Nato is investigating the incident on the poorly marked border between the Afghan province of Kunar and Mohmand. Coalition and Afghan troops believe they received fire from insurgents operating from close to the Pakistani post, which is located 300 metres into Pakistani territory. Pakistan says there were no militants operating on its side.

A senior Afghan official told the Guardian that a combined Afghan-Nato squad had received incoming fire from “the so-called Pakistani post”, prompting them to call for air support. “The most important point here is that they were receiving fire from the direction of that the post.”

The official, who did not want to be named, added: “The Pakistanis are blowing this thing totally out of proportion by responding the way they have, so severely and strongly. But we hope that they will at least come to Bonn and it will not affect the steps that we have started to take in terms or rebuilding our relationship with Pakistan.”

Afghan and coalition officials have accused Pakistan repeatedly in the past of failing to act to stop Taliban militants using its territory.

Afghans living in Kunar said they were delighted by the strike against the bases, saying they believed Taliban fighters were being harboured by the Pakistani army.

“These terrorists wear civilian clothes and then when they have done their attacks in Afghanistan they go to the Pakistan checkpoints,” said Qari Ehsanullah Ehsan, a tribal leader from the province, “Some of them wear fake beards and then put on Pakistani military clothes when they finish their operations.”

“The people of Kunar are happy. We have been telling the Americans for a long time that the Pakistanis are bringing the Taliban to our villages.”

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Nato ‘hits Pakistan checkpoint’ November 26, 2011

Pakistani officials have accused Nato helicopters of firing on a military checkpoint near Pakistan’s Afghan border, killing at least 12 soldiers.

The attack is reported to have take place in the Pakistani tribal region of Mohmand after Nato helicopters flew over the border from Afghanistan.

Nato said it was aware of “an incident” near the border and that it was investigating.

The Pakistani military said it was an “unprovoked and indiscriminate” attack.

“Casualties have been reported and details are awaited,” a military spokesman said.

The alleged attack took place at the Salala checkpost, about 1.5 miles (2.5 km) from the Afghan border, Reuters reports, at around 02:00 local time (21:00 GMT).

Unnamed officials initially put the toll at up to eight, including an army major.

Masood Kausar, governor of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, condemned the firing in a statement, reported AFP news agency.

“Such cross-border attacks are unacceptable and intolerable,” he said, adding the government would take up the matter at the highest level and launch a thorough investigation.

Pakistani troops are involved in fighting the Taliban in the crucial border region area. Some 5,000 militants have been resisting attempts by the security forces to clear them from southern and south-eastern parts of the district.

The US has been targeting militants in Pakistan’s tribal areas near the Afghan border for several months.

Last year, US helicopters accidentally killed two Pakistani soldiers near the border, prompting Pakistan to temporarily close the border to supplies shipped through the country to Nato troops in Afghanistan.

In October, Pakistan’s army chief Ashfaq Kayani warned the US against taking unilateral action in nearby North Waziristan.

He said that the US should focus on stabilising Afghanistan instead of pushing Pakistan to attack militant groups in the crucial border region.

Washington has for many years urged Islamabad to deal with militants in the area.

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