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First And Only African American Woman U-2 Pilot Shares Her Experiences

Senior Airman Bobby Cummings
U.S. Air Force photo
Then-Lt. Col. Merryl Tengesdal stands in front of a U-2 Feb. 9, 2015, at Beale Air Force Base, Calif. Tengesdal is the only black female U-2 pilot in history. Tengesdal was the 9th Reconnaissance Wing inspector general and a U-2 pilot.

The National Museum of the United States Air Force near Dayton is dusting off some if its less-frequently displayed artifacts this weekend. Secrets Revealed highlights some of the most exciting pieces of the museum's storage "closet."For one weekend only, visitors can get a close-up look inside the cockpit of an SR-71 "Blackbird, view rarely seen artifacts, photos and manuals and meet with more than 20 former SR-71 and U-2 pilots and crew members.

"Some of the museum artifacts that you can see that aren't normally out include an SR-71 pressure suit and the helmet that goes with it," says Doug Lantry, museum historian. "Some of the food that the pilots ate - it's tube food, liquefied food. You can also see some of the high-tech cameras used in the SR-71 and also one of the detachable noses from the airplane. Not many people know that they could just interchange the noses on these airplanes to get different effects from different equipment."

Among the special guest speakers is Col. (Ret.) Merryl Tengesdal, the first and only African American woman U-2 pilot. During her career, Tengesdal flew more than 300 combat hours from Afghanistan to the Horn of Africa. In total, she logged more than 3,400 flight hours and more than 330 combat hours.

"It's a difficult airplane to fly and so you have to be a pretty great pilot even to get there," explains Lantry. "She has got a wealth of experience and a lot of stories to tell and she's a fascinating individual to talk to."

She'll discuss her experiences beside a U-2 "Dragon Lady" reconnaissance "spy" plane on March 7 from 10-11:30 a.m. and 2-3:30 p.m.

"I have seen the curvature of the Earth," Tengesdal said during a 2015 Air Force interview. "I have seen sights most people will never see. Flying at more than 70,000 feet is really beautiful and peaceful. I enjoy the quiet, hearing myself breathing, and the hum of the engine. I never take it for granted."

Credit Senior Airman Bobby Cummings / U.S. Air Force photo
U.S. Air Force photo
Tengesdal receives a maintenance check on her full pressure suit by Senior Airman Garret McNeely in preparation to take flight in a U-2 Feb. 9, 2015 at Beale Air Force Base, Calif.

Tengesdal says she enjoys a challenge, like landing the U-2, which has just two wheels. She began flying with the Navy's SH-60B Seahawk helicopter before achieving a dream to "fly higher" when she was cross-commissioned into the Air Force in 2004 and began training on the U-2.

You can learn more about Tengesdal's life here.

Other Weekend Highlights

Artifacts on display both days will include a full pressure suit worn by SR-71 pilots; a flying jacket; throttle quadrant; technical objective camera (TEOC); several survival items including food tubes that were used by pilots to eat while in flight; and unit memorabilia from the 1st Strategic Reconnaissance Squadron.
On March 7, visitors will also be able to see SR-71 and U-2 manuals; historical photos; scale models; and signed posters, along with archival footage of the SR-71 in action.
Former Blackbird pilot Lt. Col. (Ret.) Jerry Glasser and Reconnaissance Systems officer Col. (Ret.) John Manzi will narrate a live presentation of their 360 degree SR-71 cockpit tour on March 7 from 11:30 a.m. - 1 p.m. in the Space STEM Learning Node located in the museum’s fourth building.
Lt. Col. (Ret.) Tom Kacena, who spent a combined 40 years in his military and civilian careers working in the space and intelligence field, including assignments supporting the Hexagon on orbit operational missions from 1974 through 1978, as well as serving as the Air Force representative in the factory during the manufacturing of both Gambit & Hexagon from 1978 through 1982, will also be stationed at the satellites in the fourth building throughout the event to meet visitors and answer questions.

A full schedule of events can be found here.

Senior Editor and reporter at WVXU with more than 20 years experience in public radio; formerly news and public affairs producer with WMUB. Would really like to meet your dog.