In an interview for C-Span that aired Sunday, Air Force Secretary Michael Wynne said that the Air Force is now investigating ways in which it can prolong a pilot’s flight time in the high-flying U-2 reconnaissance aircraft or, perhaps, eliminate the pilot entirely when the mission requires a longer flight at such extreme altitudes than is humanly possible. The Air Force wanted to begin replacing the U-2 with the Global Hawk unmanned aerial vehicle, but the current Global Hawk—although very good at its job—does not provide all the coverage of a U-2. A newer, larger Global Hawk is in the wings, but meanwhile there is this coverage gap that led Congress to prohibit early retirement of the U-2. The fact that the service might consider operating the U-2, which has some good years still, without a pilot is news. Meanwhile, the service has been upgrading the U-2 cockpit, providing enhanced pilot safety and flight controls, to sustain the aircraft through at least 2011.
The Air Force will begin its 71st annual Operation Christmas Drop on Dec. 4. The weeklong exercise is a yearly tradition that delivers supplies such as food, fishing equipment, school books, and clothes to remote islands in the Pacific. It is the longest-running Department of Defense humanitarian mission.