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Fast cars and a Cold War icon: U-2 spy planes keep watch on North Korea

Lee Jin-Man / AP

U.S. Air Force pilot Major Colby drives a chase car as a U-2 spy plane attempts to land during a training flight at the U.S. airbase in Osan, south of Seoul, South Korea, on Feb. 16, 2012.

Lee Jin-Man / AP

The Associated Press reports from Osan air base, South Korea — As a sleek black U-2 roared back from a mission, Pontiac muscle cars zoomed along the runway to help it touch down using a low-tech method dating back more than half a century to when this Cold War-era aircraft was cutting-edge.

These "chase cars" race down the runway at speeds of more than 120 miles per hour to meet each landing and guide the pilot down.


They estimate the plane's distance from the ground in feet and radio that to the pilot — "Five ... five ... four ... three ... three" — until the plane is brought to a stall with about two feet to go and essentially drops down to the ground.

"It's notorious for being hard to land," the pilot said after climbing out of the cockpit.

But the legendary U-2 "Dragon Lady" remains one of Washington's most prized possessions on the Cold War's last hot front. Pumped up by a $1 billion overhaul, a trio of these piloted aircraft are proving they can still compete with the most futuristic drones on a crucial mission: spying on North Korea. Read more.

Lee Jin-Man / AP

A U-2 spy plane takes off as a chase car stands by. When the planes land, the chase car guides the pilot down, radioing in the plane's altitude as it comes to a full stall with about two feet to go and essentially drops down to the ground.

Lee Jin-Man / AP

U-2 pilot Major Colby is assisted to put on a spacesuit and an astronaut-style fishbowl helmet for demonstration purposes. At altitudes of more than 70,000 feet the pilots are vulnerable to altitude sickness. In a worst case scenario, a pilot's blood could actually boil at peak altitude.

Lee Jin-Man / AP

The U-2 was scheduled to be phased out by 2015 in favor of the Global Hawk, which was used extensively in Iraq and Afghanistan. But the U-2 gained a reprieve last month, when the Air Force decided that replacing it with the drone would be too expensive.