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Han Decai (among many others) would find that only a missile could down the high-altitude spyplane. (Courtesy Bob Bergin)

I Was There: Bring Down the Spyplane

MIG-17 vs. Lockheed U-2.

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.

The intruder could also elude the ground controller. When we turned on our airborne radar, the PV2 would detect it, and immediately dive away. Then he would drop metal foil, and that would disrupt the ground control radar, and cause the controller to lose him.

The PLAAF pilots really risked their lives flying during these night flights, chasing the intruders. We were often flying just 50 meters [164 feet] above ground level. I still remember one P2V I chased. It was April 13, 1964, a day of shame for me that I will never forget. A P2V entered China at the mouth of the Yangtze, and flew west along the river. It kept very low, sometimes just 100 meters [328 feet] above the hilltops.

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