I Was There: Bring Down the Spyplane
MIG-17 vs. Lockheed U-2.
- By Bob Bergin
- Air & Space magazine, May 2012
Courtesy Bob Bergin
(Page 2 of 6)
What kind of tactics did you use against the U-2?
Chasing a U-2 made for a pretty dull flight. Every time a U-2 reconnaissance flight was detected in our sector, we sent up two aircraft to track it. We could go up to our maximum altitude of 15,600 meters [51,168 feet] but still not see the U-2, which was flying above 20,000 meters [65,600 feet].
The Russians used zoom climbs [diving, then climbing steeply] to try to reach the U-2. Did you employ that maneuver?
There was nothing we could do to try to reach the U-2 except zoom climb. I could get to 18,000 meters [59,040 feet] in a zoom climb, but that still left a big gap between my airplane and the U-2.
I recall from the Russian experience that at the top of a zoom climb, the aircraft was no longer a stable firing platform.
That’s exactly the way it was. The maximum speed of the MiG-17 is Mach 1.44. I would start the zoom climb by diving from 16,000 meters [52,480 feet]. At 15,000 meters [49,200 feet] I would pull up and start to climb. When I was climbing, I tried to take my angle of climb to 15 degrees. My speed would fall off to 350 kilometers [per hour], and there was nothing I could do after that. At that speed [217 mph] the airplane became difficult to control. In the end, we had to leave the job to our surface-to-air missiles.
Did you burn up any engines, as I’ve heard the Russians did in zoom climbs?
That was almost unavoidable, but it didn’t happen to me. We were fortunate that we were able to develop our missile artillery, and that we could use the surface-to-air missile to bring down the U-2.
Five U-2s were shot down with Russian-developed SA-2 surface-to-air missiles of an early generation, with limited range. This made the Chinese achievement quite remarkable. To hit the U-2 at its altitude, the missile practically had to be launched from almost directly underneath its flight path. How did you manage that?
It was just like guerrilla warfare. Our missile launchers were fixed on military trucks and could be moved around. We had some sense of where the priority targets of interest to the U-2s were, and that’s where we located our launchers. We generally fired at the U-2 when it was within a range of 15 kilometers [49,212 feet], and we used certain tactics to bring the U-2 into that range. For example, when a U-2 was detected in an area where a missile launcher was located, we cut off all the radars in that area so the U-2 would not be alerted to their presence. The U-2 was not very maneuverable. When it started getting within range, we would suddenly turn on the radars, and it was too late for the U-2 to react.
The PLAAF’s other problem at the time—also not easily solved—was the low altitude flights, particularly by the P2Vs. I understand the PLAAF used Ground-Controlled Intercept techniques. The MiGs were directed into position by the GCI controller using ground radars. To avoid detection by the P2V, the MiG would not turn on his radar until he was in position right behind the intruder.
That is exactly right. But that tactic was not effective; it really did not work very well. In fact, the P2Vs we did bring down, did not come about because of radar, but because we saw them. I can also remember an instance where a PLAAF pilot brought down a B-17 because he just happened to see the exhaust flame.
Our airborne radar was not reliable, and it had other faults. The range was short: the radar could only be used at about 1,000 meters [3,280 feet]. And because the intruders flew so low—sometimes a low as 50 meters [164 feet], there was a lot of ground clutter and it was very difficult to track them.
The radar in our MiGs was effective only if we were below the altitude of the enemy aircraft, looking up at him. If we were above him, even just slightly, and put our aircraft’s nose down, the radar would pick up ground clutter, and we could not make out the target. To make the radar effective, we had to modify it, to eliminate the lower part of the scan, and use only the upper part.