Recalling the H-Bomb that Almost Backfired

Yang Guoxiang, one of China’s top test pilots, tells the story.

(Courtesy Yang Guoxiang)
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In 1965 I was one of four pilots chosen to participate in the Q-5 flight tests. I had never flown a supersonic aircraft. To make the transition to the Q-5, I was sent to fly the MiG-19 and then the upgraded MiG-19 attack version. Finally, I was sent to Tangshan city to fly the Q-5. In 1966 and 1967, I made over 200 flights in the aircraft. At the end I prepared a report on the Q-5’s strong points and flaws.

In 1967, a meeting was held in Beijing to discuss the feasibility of producing the Q-5. The meeting was the key to implementing the program, and I was asked to speak. I cited the issues that I had covered in my written report, including the Q-5’s problems, such as its controls. They were hydraulically activated and responded very slowly to inputs. Hydraulic pressure was too low. That also made it difficult to retract the undercarriage when the airspeed reached 330 kilometers per hour (205 mph).

The meeting led to the production of the Q-5. Despite the turmoil caused by the Cultural Revolution then underway, the CPC Central Committee decided to produce 250 Q-5s. I was appointed Director of the Q-5 test flight panel, and named as Director of the Air Force Scientific Research and Development Department.

Despite our best efforts, the Q-5 program lagged well behind our hopes. It was 1969 before the Q-5 passed all its tests. After I made the last flight in December of that year, the Q-5 was declared operational, and the plant was given formal approval to go into full production. My work with this project was completed. I was named commander of an operational unit, the 19th Division in Shandong.

While we were still in test flight stage, the Director of the Nuclear Weapon Research Institute had talked with me and I started to sense that the Q-5 might be included in some strategic program. He asked about aircraft that could carry a big bomb, like the H-bomb, which was much bigger than any other bomb we had. I told him it might be possible to use the Q-5.

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.

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