A crowd of Aurora Navy League members and guests packed the meeting room at Grandma’s Table in Montgomery on March 20 to hear retired Air Force Lt. Col. Kent Catich talk about his 15 years of flying the U-2 spy plane.
Catich is an Aurora native and son of Sharon and Kent Catich, now of North Aurora.
Unlike many men who yearned to fly since childhood, Catich, who is now in his 30th year of flying, wanted to be a ski instructor in Colorado. But as a young man he joined a roommate who was going to meet a recruiter for McDonald Douglas in St. Louis. The recruiter took Catich’s application, and later offered him a tour of the plant.
“I thought it might be interesting to see how a fighter plane was built. I answered his questions, they stuck me in an F-18 and I went ‘wow’ and changed all my plans.”
He then joined the Navy and after Officer Candidate School, he was trained to fly helicopters. He was assigned to an antisubmarine warfare and combat search and rescue helicopter that was deployed from three different Naval frigates and destroyers. Catich later returned to McDonald-Douglas and ended up flying an F-18.
He was commissioned in 1989 through Aviation Officer Candidate School and completed flying training, then racked up 1,600 hours teaching fixed-wing T-34C flight training to Navy, Marine, Coast Guard, Air Force and international flight students.
This led to him being accepted into the U-2 program as the first person from another branch of service (the Navy) to enter it, he said.
He went through one week of tests and the second week had three flights in the plane to prove he could fly a fixed-wing aircraft. He passed.
Catich said he never expected to be chosen for the U-2 program, so he was quite surprised when he was. He was the first Naval aviator to interview for and be accepted into the program. In 1999, he transferred to the Air Force to become a high-altitude U-2 reconnaissance pilot. That experience of flying with a elite group of pilots lasted for 15 years, he said.
He discovered that U-2 pilots usually spend up to 10 hours in the air each time they fly. The helmets and suits the pilots wear are specially made for each pilot. Catich said he has a larger-than-normal head on his 6-foot-plus frame, so they had to make two special helmets for him at a cost of $80,000 each. The flight suits when he began flying cost $250,000 each. They’re about $300,000 each now, he said.
After a pilot is suited up by a crew, he goes to the plane and a crew connects 19 wires from the plane to his suit, and others to his helmet and boots. Once all are connected, he is confined to the seat for the total flight, which is usually about 10 hours.
He said the U-2 is a subsonic aircraft that has a range more than 7,000 miles and can fly above 70,000 feet. Its ground speed is 420 knots.
The U-2 is equipped with a panoramic film camera. The film, which is in 13,000-foot-long rolls, has to be taken to a special laboratory in the U.S. to be developed, he said. The plane also is equipped with a digital camera that can be used day and night.
He described the U-2 as a $25 million airplane carrying equipment valued at $1 million. Landing the U-2 is quite different. This is a tail dragger type of plane, which means that its third wheel is on the tail-end of the plane with the other two under the wings.
Before it takes off or lands, another pilot drives a Camaro with a Corvette engine along the runway at the same speed at the plane (always in excess of 100 miles an hour), under the plane, to make sure the takeoff or landing will be a good one and not damage the aircraft.
Catich noted that the U-2 has a yoke instead of a wheel for steering and it requires quite a bit of strength with both hands to operate the yoke.
When asked if any U-2 had been shot down, Catich said the first one was flown by Gary Powers over what was then the Soviet Union on May 1, 1960.
“It was not hit but the shock wave from the [Soviet] missile knocked the plane out of control and Powers bailed out. The wrecked plane is on display in a Russian museum,” he said.
Catich was the 705th person to fly the U-2 and the first Navy person to solo in the U-2.
He is qualified to fly more than a dozen types of aircrafts and has been awarded numerous decorations and awards. He flew in the Navy for nine-and-one-half years and subsequently in the Air Force for 13 years before retiring six years ago. When his wife said it was time to get a job, he applied to United Airlines and was accepted two years ago.
He now flies the 787 Dreamliner as co-pilot on international flights to numerous countries around the globe.
He and his wife, Heather, their two daughters, Brooke and Aubrey, and one son, Nathan, live in California.