© Kristin Hill 2009

Amid Reality and Abstraction
The Painter and the Dragon Lady

By Kristin Hill

© Kristin Hill 2010

As published in Aero Brush – Journal of the American Society Of Aviation Artists

As the heavy canopy was lowered over my helmeted head and I forced the red canopy latch handle into lock position, artist JMW Turner passed fleetingly through my mind. A century and a half earlier, the British painter seized the opportunity to stay above deck on a sailing vessel and observe with his own eyes and being the harsh stormy elements seasoned sailors knew too well. It was now my time to go where the Dragon Lady roams for hours, where the air is so thin that others of her ilk fall from the sky and the pilots within her would perish in seconds without the protections she and their yellow cocoons provide them. 

The Lockheed U-2 Dragon Lady has been flying reconnaissance missions in the upper 5 percent of the earth’s atmosphere since 1955, and in 2010 continues to provide a valuable platform for Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) that will not be replaceable for several more years. Ingenious yet basic in its design by Kelly Johnson and the Skunk Works, the single engine jet employs a large glider-like wing, bicycle landing gear, wing wheel structures called pogos that fall off at takeoff, small wingtip skids for some protection during landing, and more than ample opportunity for the pilot to really fly this lean platform in unforgivingly thin atmosphere above 70,000 feet. When more aircraft were built in the 1980’s, the plane was 40% larger though the design remained basically the same. The engines were upgraded in the late 1990s. Glass cockpits were installed after 2000. The pilot has limited visibility from the cockpit and receives assistance during landing from a second pilot in a chase car, the mobile officer. The "mobile" provides a pair of eyes outside the cockpit and some copilot support, particularly welcome input after a long mission or if the landing strays beyond routine.

If you are going to fly a “high” with the Lady, a pressure suit is necessary. Above 63,000 feet the atmospheric pressure is low enough that body fluids will boil at 98 degrees or less. The cramped cockpit maintains a pressure of 29,500 feet. The spacesuit style pressure suit maintains that pressure around the pilot's body if the cockpit pressurization fails or emergency egress is necessary. It also provides 100%  oxygen and temperature control in the minus 70 degree, near stratosphere temperatures or the 90 degree sun baked ramp environment. 

© Kristin Hill 2009
Above: Inside High Altitude Pressure Chamber – ascending above 63,000 feet ASL where fluids boil at body temperature, Kristin observes a bottle of water erupting in the low atmospheric pressure.

Left: "Treed"  – emergency egress training to rappel from parachute caught in tree.

Right, so why go dancing with the Dragon Lady? Artists are a curious lot. Of course there are the elements of intriguing uniqueness of this aircraft, its place in history and defiance to obsolescence, the contrast of its aerodynamic simplicity and ISR sophistication, its mission to seek the truth, the pilot’s solitary assignment yet his connectedness to the U-2 support community.

For me, as an aviation artist, there is more. My first flight was at two months of age in my father’s aviation business aircraft.  Being around planes and in the sky has been a normal part of life. As an artist, experiencing and observing the unique and fascinating world aloft evolved naturally into depicting the subjects of flight. Each aircraft has its own character, much like the people who fly and maintain their operation. Every sky has a world of expression, made of abstract visual elements yet grounded in nature. Curiously, with every passing year, I see more and ask more.

What does it really look like at 70,000 feet and above? Words cannot answer that question. Nor can photographs which alter the captured image. An artist with a command of the visual language discerns elements most pilots cannot communicate, though they usually recognize when a scene is captured well by an artist. Before the flight, I painted a chart of colors I anticipated seeing at high altitude. The chart would go aloft with me and provide a reference tool for observation notes. These records would be a valuable resource for future painting creation. Even for the artist, memory and words can fail to preserve a truthful picture.

With the color chart stowed by my knee, my flight training clearly focused, and my mind's eye ready to embrace impressions and the unanticipated, it is time to fly. The mechanical and life support systems have been checked multiple times by the dedicated crews. Still in the hangar, the Dragon Lady's engine is started and we taxi to the ramp where I signal our "mobile" pilot that I have pulled my three red flagged ejection seat safety pins. The Dragon Lady's UAV counterpart Global Hawk clears the runway following its flight and my pilot radios from his separate cockpit for flight readiness confirmation. Following a mere 500 foot takeoff roll, our U-2TR bounds off the runway at 30 degree climb to start an easy 20 minute climb to 60,000 feet. As I watch, the familiar atmospheric elements "over there" at 30,000 feet fall away to "down there." The view of land extends far beyond the San Francisco Bay area to distant clouds that hang below the horizon, their tops at 40,000 feet. From 70,000 feet the Golden Gate Bridge is a wisp and the edge of visible atmosphere is at eye level, seen as a band of white haze.  Just above that is a mesmerizing band of aquamarine that melts quickly into a warmer pale blue. It is this blue that grows progressively darker until seen directly overhead as a dark blue but not black cap of emptiness for our earth in the afternoon light. And beyond that seemingly empty cap, worlds too vast to imagine. 

®Kristin Hill 2009
Kristin's artist eye observes and documents the view at 70,900 feet in the U-2ST.

It is here on the capable wings of the Dragon Lady that I think of my pilot and his colleagues who fly the solitary missions far above our familiar earth, in this unforgiving environment just inches away. Since 1955 there have been only about 860 U-2 pilots. The U-2 support community is multidimensional, dedicated, skilled, close and proud as it works to keep this valuable aircraft with its capabilities in service around the world. Their various surveillance missions might detect a newly planted IED, monitor for nuclear development, or assist with hurricane disasters, just a few of the U-2 related contributions. Art images of these people at work fill my mind.

The earth below looks quantifiable in big statements and broad strokes, yet with logical patterns inside those areas. As with any aerial view, the imagery changes with degrees of moisture and light. Reflective color influences actual color. As we turn inland, we circle above some building thunderstorms. Though far below, their atmospheric forces are still treated with respect. Also below is Yosemite National Park. I have on separate occasions, stood below Half Dome, looked up at its crest while circling it in a Lancair, and to my surprise can now pick it out of the austere gray expanse of terrain so far below.

Another collection of images resides in a portion of my mind on the page titled "small chance, but know this reality" since it is also my job on this flight to be prepared. The rich yellow of my cumbersome pressure suit is meant to aid survival and detection on the ground in the case of emergency egress. The yellow of the ejection seat handles pales in color only, not in significance. The mechanical structure of my boots' silver spurs is a reconstructed memory solely, as I mentally envision kicking them free if necessary, a tricky blind maneuver like many others because of the restrictions posed by the pressure suit and small cockpit. The bright "green apple" pull of my reserve oxygen canister is somewhere down there on my right thigh. My lofty ejection seat perch includes the silvery green parachute pack, forest green box of survival gear and navy blue life raft, welcome baggage for the pilot who ejects far from home and rediscovers the details of earth in someone's territory.

®Kristin Hill 2009
The U-2 community and Kristin exchange a traditional salute following the high altitude flight.

In my mind I see many paintings that will evolve out of this precious and rare high flight experience that I worked for more than twelve years to attain. Equally impressive is the dedicated U-2 community that performs with diligence and pride to execute the missions that, even today, only they and the Dragon Lady can accomplish. One of those paintings is of the Dragon Lady at 70,000 feet at sunset off the California coast. The sunlight that wraps the earth's sphere is unique at 70,000/plus feet and spoken of respectfully by the pilots as the "terminator." Another painting recognizes the U-2's current mission in Afghanistan and depicts this black bird far above the rugged Hindu Kush terrain. The painting will be donated to the U. S. Air Force as commemoration of the 55th anniversary of the valuable U-2 program and those who have carried out its successful mission for more than half a century. And yes, still counting.  

®Kristin Hill 2009

Pacing the Terminator

by Kristin Hill

Oil painting 32" x 36"

Kristin Hill created her painting Pacing the Terminator  following her U-2 flight and additional important research she conducted with assistance from U-2 pilots and support personnel. The painting has been donated to the U.S. Air Force Art Collection as part of the recognition of the 55th anniversary of the U-2.

Pacing the Terminator and Air Force Art Presentation

Lt Col Huggins
Artist Hill
Lt Col Huggins 
AF Secretary Donley
Artist Hill

Pacing the Terminator oil painting officially enters the Air Force Art Collection at the formal presentation dinner held at the National Air Force Museum, Dayton. U-2 pilot Lt Col Jon Huggins represents the 9th RW and joins artist Kristin Hill as Secretary of the Air Force Michael Donley receives the donation. 

Pacing the Terminator painting is enjoyed by thousands at the National Air Force Museum in 2010 and at Baltimore-Washington International Airport (BWI) Gallery January - July 2011 as part of an Air Force Art Exhibit. At BWI, the painting is seen daily by thousands of people, including our troops who deploy through the BWI airport to destinations worldwide.

U-2 Pilots and Mission Planners Sign Print

U-2 Pilot Signatures on Anniversary Print Pacing the Terminator

More than 135 U-2 Pilots and 25 Mission Planners signed two Pacing the Terminator U-2 Dragon Lady prints at the U-2 55th Anniversary Reunion.  This richly personal recognition of more than five decades of U-2 history includes pilots with solo numbers ranging from 55 to 884.  Reproduction giclée prints of the pilot-signed print are available in an artist-signed limited addition of 300 which shows the reproduced U-2 pilot signatures and solo numbers surrounding the image.  A plain border print is also available.

Copyright © Kristin Hill 2010, article content and images may not be reproduced in any way.