Trainee pilots will now be able to select the U-2 Dragon Lady on their dream sheets, just like any other airframe.

Previously, the U-2 — a high-altitude, near-space reconnaissance aircraft — was not available to pilots until they had spent a minimum of six years gaining experience outside of the U-2’s reconnaissance mission before submitting an application. And when pilots were selected, it was from the pool of aircraft across the Department of Defense inventory.

But modernization of the U-2 airframe, mission, pilot acquisition and development are forcing the Air Force to look for other ways to groom spy pilots earlier in their careers.

“The well-established path to the U-2 has proven effective for over 60 years,” said Lt. Col. Carl Maymi, commander of the 1st Reconnaissance Squadron out of Beale Air Force Base, California, in a press release. “However, we need access to young, talented officers earlier in their careers.

"I believe we can do this while still maintaining the integrity of our selection process through the U-2 FACT program,” he said.

The new selection process will kick off with an experimental initiative this fall called the U-2 First Assignment Companion Trainer, or FACT, program.

Through FACT, the 1st Reconnaissance Squadron will broaden its scope of eligible crew by giving Air Force student pilots in undergraduate pilot training the opportunity to enter a direct pipeline to fly the U-2.

Every undergraduate pilot training student from Air Education and Training Command’s flying training locations, during the designated assignment window, is eligible for the program.

The first FACT selectee is planned for the fall 2018 assignment cycle and the next selection will happen about six months later.

After being selected for the FACT program, students will attend the T-38 Pilot Instructor Training Course at Joint Base San Antonio-Randolph, Texas, before permanently moving to Beale AFB.

An Air Force U-2 spy plane takes off at Osan Air Base in Pyeongtaek, South Korea, in August 2017. (Lee Sang-hack/Yonhap via AP)
An Air Force U-2 spy plane takes off at Osan Air Base in Pyeongtaek, South Korea, in August 2017. (Lee Sang-hack/Yonhap via AP)

For the next two years, the selectee will serve as a T-38 Talon instructor pilot for the U-2 Companion Trainer Program.

“Taking on the task of developing a small portion of our future recce leaders from the onset of his or her aviation career is something we’re extremely excited about,” Maymi said. “U-2 FACT pilots will have an opportunity to learn from highly qualified and experienced pilots while in turn teaching them to fly T-38s in Northern California. I expect rapid maturation as an aviator and officer for all who get this unique opportunity.”

After selectees gain enough experience as a T-38 instructor, they undergo the standard two-week U-2 interview process and, if hired, begin qualification training on the platform.

After the first two UPT students enter the program, the FACT assignment process will be reassessed to determine its sustainability.

One benefit to the new selection process could be more time for U-2 pilots to develop professionally in the career field.

FACT aims to better align future U-2 pilots with the rest of the combat Air Force’s career development timelines, according to the release.

“This program offers FACT-selected pilots enhanced developmental experience and prepares them for diverse leadership opportunities, including squadron and senior leadership roles within the reconnaissance community,” Col. Andy Clark, commander of Beale AFB’s 9th Reconnaissance Wing, said.

One example would include an opportunity to attend the new reconnaissance weapons instructors course, known as Recce WIC, which was recently approved to begin at the U.S. Air Force Weapons School at Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada.