Fly to the edge of space in a US Air Force high altitude aircraft. SOUTHWEST ASIA -- Maj. Thomas Ryan of the 99th Expeditionary Reconnaissance Squadron has just reached 2,000 flying hours, a rare milestone in the career of a U-2 Dragon Lady pilot.
The 99th ERS mission pilot is only the 25th U-2 pilot in history to reach that mark, with more than 1,000 of those hours in direct support of combat operations.
Maj. Ryan returned from his flight looking a little flushed, but happy.
"After that last flight, my bum hurts, my back is sore, I feel tired and fatigued," he said. "But I feel great!"
The achievement marks a major step in his storied Air Force career, which began in 2001 after a 12-year stint in the U.S. Coast Guard. Since then, Maj. Ryan has deployed 14 times in support of current operations and also served a one-year remote tour. Ten of those deployments have been to the 380th Air Expeditionary Wing and he will return at least once more before retiring.
Maj. Ryan is also the only U-2 pilot to make the transition from the Coast Guard. With his addition, there is now a U-2 pilot from every branch of the U.S. military in service at this time.
A reception committee greeted Maj. Ryan after his 10-hour flight. The group included the maintenance support personnel as well has his squadron and wing leaders.
Brig. Gen. H.D. Polumbo, Jr., commander of the 380th AEW, noted the personal and professional significance of his accomplishment.
"When you have an officer who has flown as long as Maj. Ryan has in the U-2, it gives me plenty of confidence to report back to the Combined Forces Air Component Commander that we can do the tough missions" said Gen. Polumbo.
Not only does that experience have operational value here, Maj. Ryan uses his experience to mentor new pilots at his home station of Beale Air Force Base, Calif., as an instructor pilot.
"He's provided me with some tips that I've incorporated into my skill set, improving my understanding of the jet and enhancing my ability to continue flying the U-2 in a combat environment," said Gen. Polumbo.
A U-2 pilot's mission typically involves flying to approximately 70,000 feet while wearing a full pressure suit, much like an astronaut. The missions are typically in excess of 9 hours long and are used to gather intelligence information essential to wartime operations.
In light of all this, achieving the 2,000 flying-hour mark takes not only dedication and focus, but great discipline, judgment, and stamina, said Gen. Polumbo.
In light of technological improvements to the U-2 systems and the speed at which imagery can be sent to analysts, the aircraft has seen an increase in sorties at deployed locations. This requires the pilots to log more hours to support the mission.
"I couldn't be more proud of Tom," said Lt. Col. Vincent Catich, the 99th ERS commander. "He flies for 10 hours a day every four days. That is absolutely incredible. He is a true asset and American hero."
Reaching such a career milestone can mean much more when it is in support of combat missions in the operational theater while surrounded by fellow Airmen, all working toward the same mission.
"When you see him around, go ahead and shake his hand and congratulate him," said Gen. Polumbo.
Video Description Credit: Staff Sgt. Mike Andriacco
Video Credit: Airman 1st Class Andrew Buchanan
Thumbnail Credit: Airman 1st Class Andrew Buchanan Modified by ArmedForcesUpdate