Patriot Files: on final approach

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt. Jarad A. Denton
  • 501st Combat Support Wing Public Affairs
The sunlight seemed to rise and greet him, as he sailed along an endless sea of clouds.

"It was very surreal," he said. "You look outside, and know you're somewhere over the coastline. But all you see is a sea of clouds. It's very peaceful."

For more than 16 years Lt. Col. Alex Castro called the sky home - navigating it on the steel wings of the U-2 "Dragon Lady." Now, as he coaxed the single engine reconnaissance plane toward RAF Fairford, United Kingdom, the gravity of situation hit him.

June 10, 2015 would be the last time Castro would fly the aircraft.

"The end comes fast," he said, with a hint of nostalgia in his voice. "I realized early on this is what I wanted to do - I wanted to fly airplanes. I didn't know what I wanted to fly. I just wanted to be airborne."

Suddenly, the view from his cockpit was filled with white, as the former 99th Expeditionary Reconnaissance Squadron commander descended into the clouds - making his final approach. Castro knew somewhere below there was a runway waiting for him, and he also knew every day of his career as a pilot had come down to these last few moments.

"It was a very selective, very hard program, and I was very appreciative to get the opportunity to be part of that," he said. "Then you blink, and it seems like it was over."

He closed his eyes for a moment as the clouds enveloped him and flooded his mind with a deluge of memories. So many deployments, different locations and different people all flashed before Castro's eyes in an instant.

"It went by really fast," he said. "But, I wouldn't trade those memories in for anything. It was great to be part of the family. The U-2 family is one that is worldwide."

Castro's mind turned toward the family he discovered within the U-2 program. He said he felt incredibly lucky for the opportunity to work with some finest maintainers, support personnel, contractors and Airmen. Sighing into his spacesuit, Castro opened his eyes just as the clouds parted and the RAF Fairford flightline appeared in his view.

"I saw the airfield and knew I was almost home," he said. "It was such a peaceful feeling to come back to the guys who are here. I couldn't ask for a better place to call it the end. It was a great program, with an even better group of people to be around."

Below him, Castro saw the "chase car," waiting at the end of the flightine, ready to guide him to a safe landing. This was the tricky part, he thought, as he inched closer and closer to the ground. Over the radio, Castro heard a familiar voice from the chase car - giving him the aircraft's altitude

Breathlessly, Castro fought against the crosswinds - trying to maintain a perfect balance. Lower and lower he drove the Dragon Lady toward the runway, until Castro heard the call he was waiting for.

"Two feet," the voice said.

Reacting instinctively, from years of practice, Castro deployed spoilers on the top of the plane's massive wings - effectively stalling the U-2 and allowing it to land on its bicycle-configured wheels.

"The U-2 is one of those designs they talk about as one of the hardest aircraft to land," Castro said. "But, overall it is part of a very dynamic, high-altitude ISR [Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance] team - and I couldn't have hoped for a better aircraft to pilot."

Without warning, a sharp cross wind struck the Dragon Lady, pushing it off balance. As it slowed, the aircraft began leaning to one side, the titanium strip on the bottom of the wing tip dragging along the runway. Coming to a stop, Castro saw his U-2 family rush to the wings - pushing on one to raise the other, in an effort to rebalance the plane and reattach the auxiliary wheels.

"What a welcome it was," Castro joked. "Everyone out here, working together - it really is a family. They are all my brothers and sisters."

Stepping out of the cockpit, Castro was greeted by a thunderous applause from the recovery team. He smiled, as he hugged and shook hands with those who had met him at the end of a long road. They joked about the less-than textbook landing as Castro laughed and shook his head.

But then, for the briefest of moments when no one was looking, his smile faded and his eyes turned skyward.

"It's a sense of freedom you can't replicate anywhere else," Castro said, as he bid farewell to his home among the clouds. "I was able to do something I loved. To be airborne, to climb above 70,000 feet, it was pure joy."