When your assignment is to drop a live nuclear bomb, you’d better not return to base with it. But that’s just what happened in 1971 to Yang Guoxiang, a pilot with the People’s Liberation Army Air Force, who told his harrowing tale to Bob Bergin, a former U.S. Foreign Service officer who writes about the aviation history of Southeast Asia and China. Bergin interviewed Yang in Kunming, China, in early 2009, with the assistance of interpreter Zhao Gang, an instructor at Yunnan University.
Air & Space: You hail from the remote mountains of Yunnan Province. How did you come to be a pilot?
Yang: China was at war with the invading Japanese as I was growing up and trying to get an education. In middle school I came in contact with the underground Communist Party and joined a communist youth group. In November 1948, I participated in an armed uprising against the Kuomintang (KMT) government and had to flee into the mountains, where I became a guerrilla. In 1949 I formally joined the PLA.
In 1949 the People’s Republic of China was founded. The People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) was established the same year. We had few pilots, so the PLAAF set up aviation schools to train them. The start of the Korean War in 1950 accelerated the process. I was serving in Yunnan and was one of 1,000 who signed up to join the air force. Six candidates were chosen, and I was the only one remaining after we six were sent to Kunming for health checks.
I was sent to Beijing in February 1950, and from there to the aviation school at Mudanjiang. Most of our instructors were former Japanese POWs who had volunteered to help the PLAAF after the war, and former KMT who had joined us. Our aircraft were Japanese and American types that remained from the war. Our training lasted just three months before we were sent to operational units. I had 70 flight hours, and was sent to fly ground attack aircraft, the Russian Ilyushin IL-10, a version of the famous IL-2 “Sturmovik” of World War II, the “Flying Tank.” I was assigned first to the 22nd Division, and later to the 11th Division, which participated in the Korean war.
We were sent to northeast China and were ready to deploy across the border into Korea when American F-84s destroyed the airport we were to use, and so we did not go. We became witnesses to the Korean War. From our base in China, we could see F-86s in the sky, and knew most of the American pilots had thousands of flying hours, while we had only a few. In terms of experience, we were children. Our only asset was our courage.
After the Korean War we modified the MiG-15 to make it suitable for ground attack. Many of the aircraft the Soviets had given us were abandoned because of the short life of their engines. When Sino-Soviet relations deteriorated in 1958, China decided to develop its own ground attack aircraft.
We were short of aircraft then, and short of fuel. Most of our airplanes stayed on the tarmac for lack of fuel and spare parts. Our pilots could fly only about 40 hours a year, and the recruitment of new pilots was suspended for several years.
A & S: Describe your role in the development of China’s Qiang-5 aircraft.
Yang: It would take years of arduous work, but China would develop its first military aircraft, a supersonic ground attack plane designated the Qiang-5, or Q-5. The chief designer was a former KMT officer, Lu Xiaopeng, who had studied aircraft design in the U.S., but stayed on the mainland after the KMT evacuated to Taiwan. He used the Russian MiG-19 as his model, and adapted its features to create a ground attack aircraft with much greater range than the MiG, but with many changes to the original design. The completed airplane was similar to the American F-4 Phantom.