If you need to chase down a jet airplane and spot its pilot on the go, you're going to need one heck of a fast car.
US Air Force pilots are used to steering some of the fastest vehicles on earth or above it. But while the vast majority of the machines we're talking about are aircraft, the Air Force also has a fleet of muscle cars, and regularly drives them up to 140 mph. What the heck for, you ask? Chasing jets, that's what. And we don't just mean Top Gun Danger Zone style, either. The air force chase cars have a very important task. And if you're good (or just keep on reading), we just might tell you what that task is.
As our friends over at Jalopnik recount, the chase cars are used to help the U-2 spy plane take off and land. The U-2 was designed during the Cold War to fly higher and farther than anything this side of the Space Shuttle, spying on other countries from higher altitudes (70,000+feet) than enemy interceptor jets, air defenses or even radar can reach. But to get it to fly that high, Lockheed had to keep it light. The original design didn't even include landing gear, but the rocket scientists (the term used here literally, not sarcastically) who designed the thing later included a narrow set of landing gear mounted in-line at the front and back of the U-2's fuselage like a long motorcycle.
Keeping the lightweight plane with its 150-foot wingspan level on those little wheels has proven quite the challenge for the 850 pilots who have been trained to fly the U-2 over its past half century of service, and so the Air Force began using chase cars.
The car carries another trained U-2 pilot who guides the aviator in the plane's cockpit when taking off (with "pogo" landing gear attached to the wings), but the trickiest part is the landing. Because of the plane's unique design, the pilot (wearing an enclosed, helmeted flight suit similar to an astronaut's that limits visibility) has to basically fly the aircraft at 140 mph just two feet off the ground, then cut the engine, deploy the flaps and essentially drop out of the sky. Once on the ground and at a full stop, the pilot drops one of the wingtips onto its titanium skid plate, the pogo wheels (which drop off after take-off) are reattached and the plane taxis off the runway.
The landing maneuver is so difficult that the spotters in the chase cars are required to give the pilot directions. And as you might expect, the cars need to be fast. The first chase cars were V8-powered Ford station wagons, which were successively replaced by Chevy El Caminos, highway-patrol Fox-body Ford Mustangs, fourth-gen Camaro Z/28s and Pontiac GTos and G8s. From this latest video, it seems the Air Force has now switched to the new Chevy Camaro. Whatever the metal, though, driving a muscle car at full speed (without flipping or hitting the plane) strikes us as the best job the Air Force can offer. That is, of course, except for flying a jet airplane.