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home : features : features November 20, 2014

11/6/2013 10:18:00 AM
Veteran flew classified, mysterious U-2 airplane
Ret. AF Col. Art Saboski
Ret. AF Col. Art Saboski
U-2 talk at Embry-Riddle
The Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University Aviation History program presents former ERAU professor and retired USAF Colonel Art Saboski at 7 p.m. on Wednesday, Nov. 13, with a program titled "Flying the U-2."

Listen to Saboski describe what it was like to fly one of history's most secretive aircraft, how he conducted reconnaissance/intelligence operations, and watch the videos and PowerPoint presentation. The modern version of the 50-year-old U-2 is one-third larger and designed for present-day digital electronics. The original was built for use of high tech cameras that were stable enough to garner clear photographs at a height of 12 miles.

Aviation enthusiasts of all ages are welcome to see this free multi-media presentation, which takes place at the ERAU Prescott Davis Learning Center Auditorium, Bldg. 20. Directions: take the new entrance to ERAU opposite Heritage Park Zoo, make the first right off the traffic circle; just past the library is the DLC, on your left with lots of parking.

Sue Tone

War is what it is. People of either side in a conflict could be friends in other situations.

- Art Saboski

Retired Air Force Colonel Art Saboski participated in the Civil Air Patrol as a youth growing up in a small town in North Carolina, never imaging he would be among the first U-2 pilots and ending up commander of the 17th Reconnaissance Wing (England), operating a fleet of U-2s providing reconnaissance and battlefield support for the Europe theater.

Saboski spent 17 of his Air Force years associated with the U-2 airplane at a time when it was considered classified.

"The U-2 was always a secret airplane and mysterious," he said this past week.

When the newer SR-71 - "the fastest airplane ever to fly in the atmosphere" - came along, people thought the U-2 would go into retirement.

"It was owned by the CIA and just put under wraps. The new U-2 was designed for the future," Saboski said. "Things the U-2 does now, the airplane isn't nearly as important as the equipment that has been designed for the airplane. The job it does now could never be imagined by those who first built the U-2."

In the 1960s, after earning a college degree in business administration, Saboski worked for a short while in the business sector, but "the draft was knocking on my door."

"I wanted to fly badly, and rather than be drafted into Army service, I wanted to get in on my own terms," he said.

He was surprised and very pleased to get picked up for officer's training in the Air Force, and then pilot training at Williams Air Force Base. He flew the F-4 fighter in Vietnam and also served as a forward air controller.

Soon he was back in the States, in Wichita Falls, Texas, teaching the South Vietnamese how to fly. Knowledge of the English language was the primary criteria to get into the program, he said, not technical or mechanical aptitude.

"To try to teach them how to fly a modern aircraft fighter, there were all sorts of challenges," he said.

Asked how he reconciled his combat experience in Vietnam with working with the Vietnamese pilots, Saboski said, "I never thought I'd be teaching the Vietnamese here in the U.S. I look back on it, and I'm glad I had the opportunity. When I went to Vietnam, I was a young guy. I had a job to do, and I knew the biggest part was learning how to do my job."

He said he felt he gained a lot while in Vietnam, and found his experiences very rewarding in many ways.

"We knew there was an enemy who was trying to stop us from doing that job. It is quite an experience going into combat. I could say, all the concerns and misgivings you have, the fear, the self-doubts, the challenge - everything the human can do to muster up the strength to do that job - it is very challenging.

"The enemy was the enemy; but at the same time, we were based in South Vietnam, with South Vietnamese who were our friends. It was the communists and their aspirations versus what we were trying do - give the South Vietnamese a chance to live their lives.

"War is what it is. People of either side in a conflict could be friends in other situations," he said.

Saboski found the Vietnamese "by far the most motivated students I have ever had." The bond was so great that after the group moved on to fighter training in Louisiana, they invited him to the graduation ceremony. In Vietnam, he saw how friends of both genders walked with their little fingers hooked together.

"We were met at the airport in Louisiana and that was the experience. I had my little finger hooked by so many - it was a sign of true friendship," he said, adding that he later learned that two-thirds of that first class lost their lives within a year of graduation.

In 1971, Saboski was waiting for his next assignment and saw a notice for U-2 pilots.

"I had scant knowledge of the U-2. I knew that it sounded like a thrilling thing to do," he said.

Working with Strategic Air Command and the Pentagon exposed Saboski to "a lot of things that went on at very high levels." At one time, he worked as crisis manager at an underground command post where he was one of five men charged with "making it happen" on the direction of the President if there was a nuclear attack against the United States.

After earning a master's degree in political science and leaving the Air Force, Saboski found work in the airlines, then looked around for a place to retire. He and his wife visited Prescott, and over breakfast one morning he said, "'You know, I sort of like this place,' and my wife said the same thing."

Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University offered him a job the next day, and he taught there for eight years. He will speak on the U-2 Wednesday evening.

"I enjoy letting people know what a remarkable program this is. Too many people have suspicions about what is classified. They suspect when something is wrapped in secrecy, it means there's something nefarious going on," Saboski said. "It's a very important airplane that's been modernized time and time again. When you hear about waste in the military, look at the U-2. It's most remarkable, and one of the most important aviation designs in history."

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