JOINT BASE ELMENDORF-RICHARDSON, Alaska — Looking across the flightline at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Alaska during previous Northern Edge exercises one would have seen a mass of gray and white aircraft, but this year the distinctly black U-2 Dragon Lady from Beale Air Force Base, Calif., made its presence known for the first time at Northern Edge, and showcased the unique capabilities it can bring to the joint fight.
Northern Edge is Alaska’s premier joint training exercise, hosting approximately 6,000 service members, 200 fixed wing aircraft and maritime forces represented by every branch of the military. The focus of the exercise is on interoperability, and it takes place throughout the state and surrounding waterways.
The two-week exercise was utilized by the 9th Reconnaissance Wing to test new experimental technology on the U-2. This technology fully integrated the Dragon Lady with 4th and 5th generation aircraft.
“It’s a big stepping stone for us,” said Maj. Dustin, 99th Reconnaissance Squadron, Wing Tactics Office, weapons school development branch chief. “It’s the first year the U-2 has participated in Northern Edge. The fact that we have forward deployed to Alaska, we’ve taken over 130 personnel from the 9RW and deployed them out to JBER is an achievement.”
The diverse team of Airmen and civilians that the 9RW sent to Northern Edge 17 worked closely to accomplish the mission at JBER.
“The comradery with everyone has been great, all of us working together to get the mission done, and it has gone really smoothly,” said Staff Sgt. David Labarge, 9th Physiological Support Squadron full pressure suit technician supervisor. “It was very rewarding to be a part of the crew that launched the first (U-2) from here in 30 years.”
Operating the U-2 program away from home and in a temporary environment brought about unique challenges in contrast to being back at Beale.
“There are several differences for 9th PSPTS; we are working out of a smaller shop, we only have three Airmen deployed here,” said Labarge. “We are also working hand in hand with maintenance closer than we normally do back at Beale.”
Those in support of the U-2 spent a total of four weeks at JBER including two weeks of preparation and two weeks of active flying during the exercise, and for the team the benefits of participating are clear.
“The benefits of coming to Northern Edge are two-fold. It allows us to exercise our ability to forward deploy to other locations. Most importantly it allows the U-2 to demonstrate new advanced technology that is coming out, such as sensor and communication packages,” said Dustin. “This environment will allow the U-2 to advance into the future.”
The experience gained and technology tested at this large joint exercise is indispensable and will help carry the U-2 forward.
“We frequently fly exercises out of Beale. In the future we are looking to take the U-2 to other locations to participate in more exercises after this successful run at Northern Edge,” said Maj. Brian, Det. 2, 53rd Test and Evaluation Group, director of operations for U-2 and RQ-4 operational tests. “By merging test development, operational test and experimental technologies, we are looking at opportunities to advance the U-2 program in both the near term as well as the next 2-5 years. By doing all three of those things we are encompassing the entire spectrum of the future of the U-2.”