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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Yang: We sent the release devices to Beijing for analysis. It was determined that one reason the shackle malfunctioned was that the mechanism was carefully kept in a heated area until just before it was mounted on the aircraft. This was not the usual procedure, but as this was the first release of a live bomb, everyone was being especially careful. When the aircraft took into the cold air, it was possible that the sudden temperature change affected the tolerances on parts of the mechanism that caused its failure to release. The shackles and release mechanism were modified so this could not happen again.

A & S: So you were not concerned on your second attempt?

Yang: The decision was to go again on January 7, 1972. Wind conditions were optimal. Weather at the Lop Nor site was good, but there was a cold front moving in. It was snowing at the airbase when I took off.

This time there was no problem. I followed procedures, and when I released the bomb, it separated from the aircraft as it was supposed to. As soon as the bomb was gone, I reversed course to get far away from the blast zone and activated shields that would protect me in the cockpit. Then I saw the flash, a very big flash. The bomb exploded in the air, at a pre-determined height above the ground. I felt the shockwave—it rocked me like a small boat in the ocean—and then I saw the mushroom cloud rising up into sky. By that time I was already 20 kilometers (12.4 miles) away from ground zero.

Watching the mushroom cloud from the air, I could see how different layers of clouds inside the mushroom were connected to one another, just like smoke from a chimney. At that moment I felt very happy. The test had been successful! And then I had to face my new concern: how to land safely on a runway covered in snow.

After I landed, I found little excitement at the airbase. Because of the heavy snow, no one there saw anything, not the great flash of light, nor the mushroom cloud that the people near ground zero saw.

At a ceremony celebrating the project’s success, I was cited for my contribution to China’s nuclear development. Zhou Enlai had said that bringing the bomb safely back after the first attempt was a miracle. At that time everything was top secret. My name was kept secret for another two decades, until I was formally acknowledged in 1999, at a conference commemorating the 50th anniversary of “Two Bombs and One Satellite,” meaning the A-bomb, the H-bomb, and an artificial satellite, the most important projects undertaken by the PLA after the founding of the People’s Republic of China.

Yang continued to fly the Q-5 until he retired at age 50. He moved back to Yunnan Province, and now lives in the provincial capital at Kunming. The Q-5A in which Yang flew the H-bomb tests, Number 11264, is on display at China’s National Air Museum near Beijing. Many other Q-5s continue to serve with the PLAAF, 40 years after its introduction.


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