There’s been a bit of news recently about the new Dodge Charger being utilized as a chase vehicle for the latest iteration of the U-2 spy aircraft, but there’s a long history of American sports cars and muscle cars used for the same purpose. Both NASA and the Air Force have used some of these vehicles chase down all manner of aircraft over the years:
According to Lt. Col. Mikko LaValley, 99th Reconnaissance Squadron commander, the visibility inside an aircraft designed specifically to allow us to see over great distances is ironically very limited. “The helmet cuts off large portions of the peripheral vision. Without the pressure suit helmet you could see side references and sometimes the wings, [but] with the helmet on, all that is gone…You need a Wingman to help you land.”
The Wingman is where a Mobil Officer comes in. “The Mobil is another qualified U-2 pilot who is driving the chase car. That car has to be able to accelerate from zero to close to 100 mph in a turn to come into position behind the airplane on the runway. While accelerating and turning, the Mobil begins to make radio calls to the pilot beginning when the aircraft is ten feet off the runway. These calls tell the pilot how far off the ground he/she is, whether or not they are line up with center line, if the wings are level, and if any control inputs are needed.”
Over the years, a lot of cars were put into use.
Ford Mustang SSP
Probably the most recognizable of any of the chase cars was the Fox-bodied Ford Mustang. At the program’s height, the U.S. Air Force used to buy eight or ten at a time. The military ordered Mustangs with the SSP package (Special Service Package) similar to the cars used by municipalities around the country.
The Air Force’s cars were originally ordered in Dark Shadow Blue metallic, and then sprayed with non-metallic United States Air Force “Strato Blue.” The Mustang LX 5.0s were all ordered identically, with an AOD automatic transmission. Upon delivery, they were accessorized with a two-way aircraft radio, and an amber light bar. They were also equipped with a heavy-duty 130-amp alternator to run the radio and lights.
Between 1963 and 1966, NASA was experimenting with aircraft that would inform the development of the Space Shuttle, the M2-F1. The NASA M2-F1 was a wingless glider, conceived to test theories about horizontal reentry into the Earth’s atmosphere.
The aircraft was only designed to glide, so to test its flight abilities, it was towed to 86 miles per hour behind a 1963 Pontiac Catalina Convertible. According to one account, “Walter ‘Whitey’ Whiteside, who was working in the Flight Operations Division, was a dirt-bike rider and hot-rodder. Together with Boyden ‘Bud’ Bearce in the Procurement and Supply Branch acquired the Pontiac Catalina convertible with the largest engine available and then sent it to Bill Straup’s hot-rod shop near Long Beach for modification. With a special gearbox and racing slicks, the Pontiac could tow the 1,000-pound M2-F1 110 miles per hour in 30 seconds.”
There’s even a short video of the Catalina in action:
Chevrolet El Camino
At least two El Caminos were in service as chase vehicles at different points. One was a 396-powered 1968:
Rick Schaefer writes that a U-Tapao Air Base in Thailand between 1972 and 1973, there was a U-2 reconnaissance outfit stationed. “The U-2 used outrigger wheels at the end of each wing while taxiing and taking off. Once the U-2 got enough speed, the wings developed lift, rose and then the outrigger wheels dropped off.
When it came time to land, the ground crew would run down the runway in a 1968 SS-396 El Camino to “catch” the wing tip before it lost lift and fell to the ground. I think, but I am not sure any more, that someone rode in the bed and secured the wing tip to the elky as the plane and El Camino slowed. At the end of the runway they would stop, replace the outriggers, and use the elky to tow the plane back to a hanger. I do remember that the El Camino was a well worn SS and that it took an amazing amount of co-ordination to recover the aircraft.”
In at least one photograph, there’s indication that the Air Force was also using a 1979 to 1987 G-Body-based El Camino for similar duty.
Presently, the Dodge Charger is in use, replacing several GM cars, including a Camaro, a Pontiac GTO and a Pontiac G8.