A & S Interview: Yang Guoxiang
One of China's top test pilots recalls the H-Bomb that almost backfired.
- By Bob Bergin
- Air & Space magazine, January 2010
Courtesy Yang Guoxiang
(Page 2 of 4)
Later, when Zhou Enlai asked about aircraft appropriate for an H-bomb mission, the Air Force Engineering director recommended the Q-5. That led to the question of a pilot qualified to fly the mission. In a regular bomber like the Tu-22, there was a crew of six, but on the Q-5 there was only one man. He would have to be a highly skilled pilot, totally familiar with the Q-5, and politically acceptable. The Nuclear Weapons Research Institute later requested that I be named as pilot for the mission. At the end of April 1970, I was told that I would drop the H-bomb.
A & S: Can you discuss the logistics of this mission?
Yang: I met with the Director of the Nuclear Weapon Research Institute to discuss the Q-5’s capability. The Q-5 had limited space inside its fuselage for weapons. The H-bomb was two meters (6.5 feet) long and weighed a ton. We discussed the problem for three days, and in the end decided the bomb could be carried externally, slung under the fuselage, in a semi-recessed bay, on a mounting that was like two hooks. Later we added a device that would push the bomb out so that it could not collide with the aircraft when it was released. This variant of the Q-5 modified to carry a thermonuclear hydrogen or H-bomb was designated the Q-5A. We believed the bomb could be dropped by the end of 1970.
The bomb would not literally be dropped, but “tossed” at the target. The technique we used was to approach the target at an altitude of 300 meters (984 feet) to stay below the capability of most radars of the time, and at a speed of 900 kilometers an hour (560 mph). When the aircraft was twelve kilometers (7.5 miles) from the target, we would start a climb at an angle of forty-five degrees. At precisely an altitude of 1200 meters (3,936 feet), I would release the bomb.
After the bomb separated from the aircraft, it would continue to climb to 3,000 meters (9,840 feet) and then start down. As the bomb climbed, it sped toward the target twelve kilometers (7.5 miles) away. It would take the bomb sixty seconds to reach the target and explode right above it. Meanwhile, as soon as the airplane released the bomb, it reversed course to get well away from the area of the blast.
Our target zone was 200 meters (656 feet) in diameter, which I could usually strike. Once in about ten times I could hit within 50 meters (164 feet) of the center. We had practice bombs that replicated the size and weight of the actual H-bomb, but made of steel and cement. I dropped practice bombs 200 times.
Then, in late 1970, we had a problem with the H-bomb itself. During a test at the Lop Nor test site, the bomb exploded, but the expected atomic reaction did not occur. The H-bomb had failed; the cause would have to be investigated. My work preparing for the Q-5A for the mission came to a halt. I returned to my unit in Shandong.
The next year, in September 1971, a political event occurred that eventually determined the timing of the H-bomb project. Vice Premier Lin Biao was killed in an airplane crash while trying to flee to the Soviet Union after a failed coup attempt. There had been an upheaval in the PLA, and to raise morale, Chairman Mao Zedong decided that we would drop the H-bomb that year.
The date of the mission was kept secret. Once the date was chosen, and Chairman Mao concurred, all of the personnel at the nuclear site were restricted to base.
The director of the nuclear weapons institute took me aside and privately briefed me on what I could expect when the bomb exploded. He assured me that I would not be in any danger. Because of that and the many practice missions I had flown, I did not feel any differently when I carried the live bomb.
A & S: And on the day of the actual flight?
Yang: On December 30, 1971, weather conditions were good. I took off from the airbase in the late morning and headed toward the target, ground zero at Lop Nor, three hundred kilometers (186 miles) away. I flew at 900 kilometers an hour (559 mph) and an altitude of 300 meters (984 feet), following the procedures we had established. Twelve kilometers (7.5 miles) from the target, I started my 45-degree-angle climb, and exactly at 1,200 meters (3,936 feet) released the bomb.
Nothing happened! The bomb did not separate from the aircraft. The indicators on the panel showed that it was still attached. I turned back toward the target and prepared to do everything again a second time.
We had planned for emergencies. There were three separate release mechanisms, mechanical links to the bomb shackle, of which two were backups in case the first one failed. I tried all three; none worked.
On my second approach I followed the same procedures, and again the bomb failed to release. I turned to try again. I made a third approach, and for the third time the bomb would not release. The situation was now critical. I was running short of fuel.