At 70,000 feet, there is no breathable oxygen, but that doesn’t mean pilots flying at that altitude can’t snack.
Tube foods allow U-2 pilots to nosh on everything from pizza and pasta to grandma’s apple pie while cruising at crazy high altitudes. The only caveat is that every morsel must fit through a 3/8-inch-thick straw that can be slurped through their highly pressurized helmets.
The suits and helmets U-2 pilots wear in flight can’t be removed, which makes it impossible for them to eat using their hands or standard utensils. So the Army’s Combat Feeding Division devised a way to connect tiny tubes of food to straws in the helmets to feed these high flyers.
“The U-2 missions last up to 12 hours in duration and require a source of food. Each tube provides 150 to 300 calories,” Combat Feeding Division food technologist Dan Nattress told Military Times. “The aluminum tubes are designed to attach to a straw-like probe that fits through a small retractable receptacle on the helmet.”
The tube food program has been around since the 1950s, when the U-2 was first flown. And the suits worn by pilots were actually given to the first astronauts as well.
“John Glenn took tube foods on his orbital mission although they are not typically used in space,” Nattress said.
Despite their diminutive size, the meals pack a punch, and aren’t anything like a smoothie. They have legitimate food texture.
“Originally all the tube foods were made into a fine paste or sauce,” Nattress said. “In the newer varieties we try to use as much texture as possible.
Today, the Combat Feeding division produces 19 varieties of tube foods, all with unique flavors and mouth-feels.
“It’s possible to make products such as a beef stew where the meat, potatoes, carrots, peas and gravy can all be discerned individually,” Nattress noted. “Same with apple pie where you taste the apples, spices and crust (yes, crust!).”
Having eaten a tube food in the air is a fairly unique experience, however. In fact, fewer than than 1,500 pilots have ever flown the U-2 since it first took flight in 1955.
Sarah Sicard is a Senior Editor with Military Times. She previously served as the Digital Editor of Military Times and the Army Times Editor. Other work can be found at National Defense Magazine, Task & Purpose, and Defense News.