Were you into flying as a kid?
No, I did not come from an aviation family. I grew up in Southern Texas. My dad was an engineer at the NASA space program.
Well that's cool!
It was really cool! I have a brother that's nine years older and my sister is seven years older and I grew up as a young kid during the Apollo flights so all the astronauts kids were in my elementary school. My brother carpooled with Frank Borman's son, Eddie. You know Neil Armstrong? His kid was in my kindergarten classroom. So I really grew up in the space and flying environment down by Ellington Field by Houston Texas. I didn't really have anybody to get my focus towards aviation directly, but I knew since about the time I was eight years old that I wanted to fly in some capacity.
Was that what got you into flying?
I always liked to do exciting things, you know crazy things, big jumps on my bicycle and that sort of thing. I was always adventurous as a kid and liked to go hiking and camping a lot, but I never really got my focus on flying. I just didn't know how to get into it and of course we didn't have the Internet back then to pursue it. But when I got into high school and was thinking about college, I found that there was a chance for me to go into the Air Force ROTC scholarship program in college. My goal was to go into that, do well enough to get a pilot slot in Air Force pilot training, and as you can see, it worked out
Why did you choose the Air Force?
Well that was a tough call but there are a couple reasons. The short answer is that they're the ones that offered me a pilot slot and not the Navy. But initially, the Navy was my number one choice and I applied to the Navy but they weren’t going to give me a pilot slot and the Air Force did.
The one thing that was a big influence on me going Air Force was during my senior year in high school. I had an English teacher by the name of June Scobee and her husband was Dick Scobee who was the commander of the ill-fated Challenger mission. This was about five years before the Challenger accident when Col. Scobee was lost, and anyway, she was my English teacher and every year she always had her senior English class come over to her house for a little evening party. So I came over, it was late in the senior year, and she introduced me to her husband and she said “Oh Dick, this is Jon Huggins and he is going for an Air Force ROTC scholarship or a navy scholarship, can you talk to him?” So Col. Scobee walked me through his house and showed me all this cool stuff. After I spent 20 minutes with Col. Scobee I was thinking, you know I think I want to go Air Force. He was such a neat guy. I really appreciated all the time he spent with me just to show me his career, so that was a big influence for me.
Huggy, very few people get to fly U-2's. How did you end up flying one and what does it take to be a U-2 pilot?
Well let's see, 862 people have flown the airplane in 55 years so you can do the math. It is only about 16 people a year. And what does it take to fly a U-2? You’ve got to be a little bit twisted and little bit weird and a little bit of a nut case, ha ha. But you know you just have to have a desire to do it more than anything else. It's not the kind of military flying job that all pilots want to do. It appeals to some people like me but there are a lot of guys that would absolutely be miserable in this job. The nice thing about it it's an all volunteer assignment and as a result, we only get the guys that want to be there.
So why the U-2? Well that's a good question. I was a T-38 instructor pilot for my first assignment but let me jump back a bit. No one goes to the U-2 directly. You have to be an experienced pilot before you can go into this aircraft because of the nature of your job.
Yeah because I've seen videos of it and it doesn’t have two wheels in the back, it just has one in line with the fuselage.
That's a big part of it and the skill of flying it, but we also need guys that have experience in airmanship. We send these guys off for 9-10 hours by themselves, no wingman and no crew. We need mature, experienced aviators to do that, which takes a few years to build, so that's what we do.
So I was a T-38 instructor pilot and my goal was to fly fighters after that. At that time almost everyone flying T-38’s was going into fighters. Well at about the time I was coming up for an assignment, the fighter draw down was occurring and there was no way I was going to get to go into fighters. So I ran into a friend of my mind and he said, “I am going to the U-2”, and I said, “really, I don’t know anything about that” so I started pursuing it and he helped me out and we discussed it. I looked into it, I applied and interviewed and I got the job and the rest is history!
Here's Huggy driving the chase car to talk down U-2 pilots (These two photos courtesy of my good friend Sagar Pathak)
Yep that's pretty cool! You're an instructor pilot now right?
I'm an instructor and an evaluator in both the U-2 and the T-38. In fact I've been an instructor for the T-38 for, let's see, 17 of the last 23 years.
How do you like being instructor pilot? Do you still get to fly combat missions?
I do. I work in what we called FTU, the flight training unit, or the schoolhouse as we call it, but I'm in the unit now that teaches the new guys. The early part of my career I deployed into the combat zones and flew the operational missions but now the bulk of my job is teaching the new guys the experience that I've gotten over the years. Do I still deploy? Yes, about once every year or two years. My last appointment was actually out to Key West Florida last year for about six weeks. But yeah, I don't get on the road that much. In fact I’m spending most of my time on weekends at weekend airshows which is kind of nice
What’s it like flying a U-2? Is it much different from other planes?
It's a very different aircraft to fly. It’s a very old design; it's not a mil spec design like a modern airplane that goes through flight testing where engineers and the flight test guys breed out all the bad qualities of the aircraft. That was not the case when they designed the U-2. So we have an aircraft that that's a 1950’s design and didn't have the luxury of all the modern technology for getting good flight controls and good ergonomics and good visibility. So we deal with that on a daily basis flying the aircraft. It's a very physical aircraft to fly. You come out of that airplane after doing touch and goes and landings for an hour, and you’re physically sweaty. I've seen guys after two hours wring the sweat out of their flight suits. It's a very physically demanding aircraft
Can you tell me about the coffin corner?
When we fly the U-2 we go up so high. As you climb higher and higher and higher, our airspeed gets lower and lower because we’re flying at .7 mach. As we get closer and closer and closer to the stall speed we also can't go any faster because we are only going six knots from our maximum speed. The coffin corner was more prevalent in the old U-2C models which don't fly anymore. People say there's only a couple knot gap. Nah, it’s much bigger. We’ve got about 6 knots to the front and depending on where we are at, we could be 10 or 20 knots before we’re back to our stall speed. It doesn't sound like much but it's way improved over the old U-2C models and once you get used to the aircraft, it's quite doable
(Huggy took this shot of the Bay Area)
What does it feel like to be at 70,000 feet? Do you get time to relax and enjoy the view?
You do, but you never really get the time to relax in the U-2. It's an aircraft that will always try to bite you when you're not paying attention. You know, when you get up there, you may have couple hours where you have to drive to the area that you can operate in. We can sit back and settle into the cockpit, lots to do, and then you have an hour or so where nothing is going to happen. You can just monitor the aircraft and enjoy the view. And you know, the view is stunning. You’re up high, but the colors, as you get up in the high altitudes, it starts like a light pale blue on the horizon and then the more you look straight up overhead, the more it goes from dark blue and indigo to black. It's just stunning.
Wow, that's pretty cool
It’s a wonderful view
(Huggy took this shot of Lake Tahoe)
I hope I can do that someday. Do you like flying the T-38?
Everybody loves a T-38! I've only come across one guy that didn't like the T-38 and it took them about 200 hours and now he likes it! You know the T-38 is really like little sports car. There’s no auto pilot, no weapons, all you do is go fly that aircraft. And it's really a great aircraft. The aircraft we’re going to see today came from our unit. It’s a 50-year-old design and I don’t know if you knew, but the T-38 was designed and the initial prototype flew 50 years ago this year. It's a timeless design. It's well done and we'll see how much longer they last.
(These two photos courtesy of my good friend Sagar Pathak)
Why do U-2 pilots also fly the T-38?
Well, the U-2 is it working aircraft, so a lot of them are deployed. We have a handful back here in the states, but it's an expensive aircraft to fly. What we try to do is augment our U-2 flying with T-38 flying. The T-38 is much easier to work on, it operates much cheaper, so it uses less taxpayer dollars to fly. But they’re both similar in that they both require a very fast cross check of the cockpit or scan if you will. They're completely different aircraft and different types – one is two engine, one is one engine, one is supersonic and fast, one slow, one big wing and one small wing. They’re completely different, but there's a lot of good similarities about the aircraft. We use the T-38 to its max capability while teaching guys airmanship with formation, doing a lot of instrument work for instrument check rides, and just making guys better pilots using the T-38 to make them better pilots for the U-2.
Have you flown in combat and if so, can you share some cool combat stories?
I flew on the opening morning of Desert Storm back in ‘91 and I flew on the opening of the second Desert Storm. I flew in the opening of the Bosnian conflict, and I flew the last United Nations mission over Iraq before the war started back in 2003.
It's interesting to be there in the beginning, at the very beginning, but good stories …. a lot of it was at night and I remember during the Bosnian conflict being up there at night. The attacks were coming in and we’re on a secure radio. I could hear the attacks and I knew when they were coming in and we knew where look and just seeing all the explosions from 70,000 feet. It’s quite exciting. Then you see the missile launches coming up and see quite a fireworks show. It was real exciting. But nothing really dangerous. We’re pretty good about staying away from the threats and generally, you got the box seats to watch the opening conflict. It's very exciting, very intense and very exciting.
How many hours of flight time do you have? And with all those hours you must have some unforgettable stories!
You know I have so many unforgettable stories that I've forgotten a few of them unfortunately. My friends occasionally remind me of them because of my memory but I’ve got over 6000 hours of military flying plus my civilian flying that I like to do. But you know, I have 3500-3600 hours in the T-38, another 2200 or so in the U-2, and a smattering of other hours in other things. In my career counting my civilian airplanes, I have flown over 80 different aircraft. But you know, I really love flying the T-38 and the U-2 the most.
(Huggy getting checked out in an L-39)
Huggy is a great friend and does a super job announcing at air shows. I think when he retires form the USAF, he should be an air show announcer!
(or maybe my CFI!)
Special thanks to Sagar Pathak for some of the photos I used. Be sure to visit his awesome website: