History Hits: Air Force Chase Cars—The Other Government Hot Rod
A few weeks ago, the topic of the last History Hits was what many people call ‘the only government built and run hot rod’ to have existed, the Pontiac convertible chase car built for NASA. Part way through writing that article, I realized how utterly and completely wrong those ‘many people’ are: there were plenty of other government hot rods, owned and operated by the Air Force to ‘chase down’ various specialty planes.
Oftentimes, landing a plane can be a difficult business, as between you and your sight of the ground there happens to be a lot of plane in the way. Usually, pilots can ‘feel’ themselves down, easing slowly down in speed and altitude until the wheels touch down and they can apply the brakes. With the increase in speeds and altitudes that jet engines brought to the world of aviation, this process became even more difficult, and the invention of specialty planes by the USAF—which took aerodynamic principles to the extremes—sometimes made landing a true hazard. This was truest with the joint CIA/USAF aviation project, the U2 spy plane.
The U2 was designed to fly so high so as to be untouchable by countermeasures, flying over hostile territory with impunity, photographing along the way. This worked for a time, and while the program came crashing into global awareness with the ‘Gary Powers Shoot-Down Incident’ in 1960, the planes are still being flown today on occasion, as they provide the ability to loiter anywhere in the world, mostly invisible to all but the best militaries. This means the U2 is one of the Air Force’s longest-running project, which also means that a particular quirk of this project has been maintained all that time as well.
To be able to fly as high and as long as it does, the U2 is as thin as the jet engine allows, with knife-like wings wider than the plane is long, and a weight kept as low as the engineering allowed. This thin profile combined with extra-thin wings means that the U2 had no room for anything more than a ‘bicycle’ style landing gear, with two sets of wheels forward and rearward on the underside of the planes fuselage. The wings, being too thin to contain a complicated landing gear, were therefore unsupported by design, with the only built-in ground support for the plane being the tandem wheels. As there is obvious difficulty in balancing such an ungainly plane on two wheels, especially while taking off or landing, solutions had to be thought up.
The solution to taking off was simple, as the plane’s designers fabricated a de-attachable wheel assembly capable of supporting the plane, dubbed ‘Pogos’ which would automatically detach as the wings lifted off of the ground. Landing the plane, which had almost no visibility, only two landing gear, and a landing speed range of around 10mph either way before catastrophe occurs, was a much more difficult proposition. Oddly, the solution to having no landing gear turned out to be a simple one, as engineers merely installed a titanium skid plate on either wing tip; the intent being that pilots would land—mostly blind and having to concentrate on maintaining a specific speed lest they crash due to the planes aerodynamics—and balance on their two center wheels, coming to a gradual stop. As the plane slowed enough so as to be unstable, the pilot would gently dip a reinforced wingtip into the—preferably grass—side of the runway.
If that sounds so terrifying and challenging as to be nearly impossible, you would be right, and the Air Force quickly realized this. Taking off was simple, but landing was almost impossible to do alone, as the now mission-exhausted pilot is, in the single-seat U2. To make landing easier and safer, the Air Force decided that having a fellow U2 pilot on the ground, talking the pilot down was an easy solution. The pilots loved this idea, but with one observation: it would be even safer if they could follow the U2 as it landed, giving precise, eyes on observations to the pilot via radio.
Thus, the Air Force chase car was born. Beginning in the 1950’s during the programs testing, the United States has maintained a serviceable fleet of muscle cars which U2 pilots throughout the years have utilized in roaring after a U2 spy plane on a runway. The requirements were simple: have enough torque to accelerate quickly to the pace of the incoming U2, which is well over 100mph, and to have enough room for suitable equipment for the task of safely landing a U2. The requirements regarding needed room changes with the times, as a suitable radio in the 1950’s needed its own A/C unit, and now a suitable radio can fit in the passenger seat.
Below, are the various chase cars the USAF has used, beginning in the 1950’s all the way to today. If you would like further details on a specific car—which will only be briefly outlined below—then let me know in the comments.
Without further ado:
The 1950’s and the First Chase Cars
When the U2 was beginning testing, the concept of the chase car was born. However, just as the plane was in testing to work out its kinks, the program managers had no idea what would be needed out of a chase car; they figured it had to be big, fast, and obviously American. Going to the local Ford dealership in Southern Nevada and giving no hints as to the planned use of the cars, they ordered a couple station wagons and sedans, probably of the 1957 or 1958 model year.
Not much is known of these early chase cars, only that they were equipped with the most powerful engines available at the time. This could mean one of two powertrain choices; either the ‘Thunderbird Special’ 312CUI Y-Block V8 equipped with a supercharger, pumping out 300hp and meant for police interceptors but available for all, or the 352CUI FE V8, which also achieved 300hp, albeit without a blower.
I sincerely hope they ordered ‘Thunderbird Special’-equipped vehicles, as that is one of the coolest factory option packages ever.
Large cars were needed, because despite weighing more than a smaller car, the extra space was required so as to fit the radio equipment and testing equipment the program was then utilizing.
The 1960’s and ‘70’s: The Real USAF Muscle Cars
This period in the U2’s history—when it was known by all, yet still cutting-edge technology—featured the best-known chase cars utilized by the USAF: a series of El Camino’s, all equipped to the hilt with the SS package. Many Air Force veterans remember these cars, either hearing of them or seeing them personally, and will often say they were ‘souped up’.
As much as I would love to have found evidence of Air Force mechanics tweaking carbs and installing cams, it seems these ‘souped up’ options mostly related to radio and tracking equipment necessary for plane-chasing. Despite that, the Air Force El Caminos were always optioned as the most powerful available from the factory that year. This generally meant they were all equipped with the SS package, and had a monster of an engine, with the particular engine depending on the order year.
These SS El Caminos, equipped with engines ranging from the 325hp 396SS all the way to the 454 LS6 equipped cars with the big-block featuring 450hp, were used for almost two decades, simply because they were the best cars for the job. Deemed so essential to U2 operation, whenever a U2 was transported to a new base, a cargo plane containing two SS El Caminos would not be far behind.
The truck-like design of the El Camino also led to a unique way of landing the U2: on runways where it was dangerous to dip a wing, the U2 pilots on the ground would use two El Caminos, roaring to a steady pace under either wing. When the cars matched pace with the plane, and the wing was low enough, Airmen in the back bed would sit up and attach the Pogo used for takeoff, and the plane would land using four landing gear.
Whoa. The cajones on everyone involved in that ballet…
The 1980’s and 1990’s: Cop Engine, Cop Brakes, Cop Wheels….
When the 1980’s came around, the U2 was facing a reduced operational tempo, and the El Camino’s were getting fairly tired. Not knowing how long the U2 would be for this world—the SR-71 was flying the skies and satellites were growing ever more powerful—no replacement for the El Camino was planned. One day, when an El Camino was not available, a U2 base in California needed a chase car, and not only did they need it fast, they needed it to be fast.
Enter the California Highway Patrol, who at the time were receiving delivery of their new Fox-body Mustang SSP police interceptor cars. After a few calls were made, the USAF got their hands on a loaner CHP Mustang, and the rest was history.
It was perfect.
It turns out that by the 1980’s, police cars were essentially purpose-built USAF U2 chase cars, especially the interceptors. Designed to be fast from dig, have a high top speed, and already factory-equipped with many of the beefed-up electronics needed to run radios, the USAF quickly replaced their entire fleet of El Caminos with Mustang SSPs.
When these Mustang’s began showing their age—I can’t imagine these cars are driven nicely—the USAF again repeated the formula, this time buying Z28 Camaros equipped with the Police Package and the 5.7L LS1 engine.
New Millennium: Same Plane, Same Chase Car Formula
It is amazing that the U2 made it from the 1950’s and 1960’s well into the year 2000 and beyond. The Air Force, never sure of the plans for the U2, generally resist replacing the chase cars until they are needed to. As such, the 1980’s and 1990’s fleet of police muscle cars drove well into the new millennium, until it became clear a new car was needed.
Rather than acquire a large fleet of cars this time, the USAF instead choose to order around 20 Pontiac G8’s. As radio technology has gotten so advanced as to essentially be able to fit in your pocket, it means that almost any car can be used. As such, the Air Force no longer sends their own cars with the U2 on foreign deployment every single time, instead opting to sometimes lease high-power German Sport Coupes for chase car duties.
A Tesla was even photographed one time, which may be the perfect chase car with its instant torque.
As the fleet of G8’s gets tired, the Air Force is replacing them one at a time on a need-by-need basis with the next best car, the new Camaro SS.
As the U2 nears its 65th birthday, there is no denying that it is no longer long for this world. However, the death of the venerable U2 does not necessarily mean the death of the USAF chase car. The Air Force’s newest large spy drone—that we know of—is dubbed the RQ-4A, and recently pilots have been utilizing the U2 concept of chase cars, to ease the process of manual landings. As pilots have potentially thousands of miles between their craft and themselves, having eyes on the ground is even more important.
Who knows, you may join the Air Force and spend your time driving really fast in straight lines down runways.
Ah, the dream…
To watch a chase car in action, check out the video below:
Like the article? Want to read more like it? Check out my website thespeedtrap.net, for weekly history articles and more besides. If I missed something or if you have a question, feel free to leave a comment below, and don’t forget to hit the like button.
Stephen Hyden View All
I recently recieved a degree in History from the University of Nevada, Reno.
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