Suit Up and Fly High in NASA’s Science Spy Plane

Most pilots prep for flight by going over some paperwork, checking some numbers, maybe packing a few granola bars if there’s no meal service. Stu Broce climbs into a spacesuit, spends an hour breathing pure oxygen to ward off decompression sickness, and thinks about the flavored goop he’ll suck through a straw as he gazes at the curvature of the Earth from 70,000 feet up.

That’s because Broce flies an ER-2, a modified version of the famed U-2. And while Lockheed Martin designed the long-winged, high-flying aircraft for Cold War spy missions, Broce flies for NASA—and for science.
The traits that make the U-2 great for military reconnaissance apply to scientific research, too. That’s why NASA operates two special versions of the single-engine jet out of its Armstrong Flight Research Center in Southern California. The ER-2 has four pressurized compartments, with electrical supplies, which scientists can equip with instruments to measure what’s happening on Earth, in the oceans and atmosphere, and in space.

Unlike a satellite, the plane can be deployed and moved over targets quickly, giving it a major advantage over purely space-based observations. Measurements made by an ER-2 flying out of Chile in 1987 helped confirm that chlorofluorocarbons were causing a hole in the ozone layer. More recently, they’ve flown over developing hurricanes, helping forecasters calculate their paths. Flying in the stratosphere, above 99 percent of the atmosphere, the ER-2 can also be used to test instruments that will eventually end up on satellites—and bring them back to the earthbound engineers for the necessary adjustments.

So join us as we follow Broce from suit-up to takeoff, and find out what he thinks about that goop he’s eating.