The U-2 Pilot Who Forgot To Fly Midflight

The U-2 Pilot Who Forgot To Fly Midflight | Frontline Videos

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A routine surveillance mission in 2006 was about two hours in when something unimaginable happened. That time, Kevin Henry, an experienced U-2 pilot, suddenly experienced fatigue, difficulty breathing, and hallucinations.

And as his cognitive abilities rapidly declined, Henry opened the visor on his pressurized helmet…


U-2 pilot suits are basically spacesuits, similar to what astronauts wear. As you’d expect, it can also get pretty hot inside the air-tight suit, which is why they connect a cooling system that can be hooked into the cooling system inside the U-2’s cockpit.

When flying at 70,000 ft, the cabin pressure is equivalent to that at 29,000 ft – almost the same as Mt. Everest. This means the thinner air causes each breath to be less than a third of the oxygen they’d typically breathe in.

To avoid danger, U-2 pilots would have to “pre-breathe” pure oxygen an hour before takeoff to eliminate all nitrogen from their systems. Nitrogen trapped in blood and tissues can be released as the plane climbs to higher altitudes – a condition known as “decompression sickness.”

Rough Start

That morning, Henry’s pre-breathe did not go as planned – his helmet was refusing to seal properly onto his face.

“The bottom line is I just didn’t get a good pre-breathe. We were all pushing to make the takeoff time and get airborne for the mission.”

It was supposed to be a routine nine-hour flight, but disaster struck two hours in. He felt tired all of a sudden – then a huge headache followed by difficulty in breathing. Unbeknownst to him, he was already experiencing a “full frontal lobe attack.”

After a few moments, Henry suffered his first hallucination. His U-2 looked like it made a 30-degree roll, even though it didn’t. He knew something was wrong.

Taking It Off

Henry knew the oxygen system was causing all this, so he pulled the knob to activate the backup oxygen supply, but it didn’t help. Suddenly, Henry vomited inside his helmet.

He instinctively opened the visor, wiping the vomit with his other hand. Now, with the helmet open, he was breathing oxygen pressurized only to 29,000 ft.

His eyesight began to fade, turning black and white as it faded to gray.

Those at Beale AFB saw Henry’s critical situation, so they called in his squadron commander, who then tried to walk Henry through the instruments. 

However, he was too far gone to even remember how to put the necessary data into the autopilot to get himself back home.

Classified Information

While this was happening, his U-2 was flying near unfriendly countries, an event that could trigger an international incident.

The only option then was to get him home by landing at an air base in a Mideast nation – to this day, this information is still classified.

With some difficulty, the home base was able to guide Kevin to point his aircraft in the right direction as he slipped in and out of consciousness.

Last Few Hours

For his last hour of flight time, two fighter jets from the host nation flew out to accompany his U-2 plane. It was reported that Kevin would sometimes fly within a few feet of the ground. But somehow, he was able to safely land the aircraft at the base.       

Not only was a half-conscious, oxygen-deprived pilot with a severe case of decompression sickness able to fly for 6 hours back to base, but he also landed centerline with the wings still level.

Upon landing, Henry was quickly transferred to seek medical help. Examinations showed that nitrogen bubbles had formed in his brain, impeding his ability to function.


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