Bring Down the Spyplane

MIG-17 vs. Lockheed U-2

Han Decai (among many others) would find that only a missile could down the high-altitude spyplane. (Courtesy Bob Bergin)
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It was the Russians who taught us. After I completed the training, I became an instructor to teach other PLAAF pilots how to fly at night. Then, in March 1956, I was transferred from northeast China to Wuxi airbase in Jiangsu province, in east China. The weather there was more complicated than in the northeast, and it was quite a test for our pilots. But by 1956, we were competent in night flying and all weather flying.

Was your assignment to Wuxi related to the night incursions of Taiwanese aircraft that were going on at this time?

Yes, it was related. We got the MiG-17bis without radar. We also received a radar equipped MiG-17 from the Soviet Union, the PF model, which was used to attack the low-altitude intruders from Taiwan.  China was developing its own aircraft at his time, the Model 56, which was based on the MiG-17.

But my squadron’s main target was the U-2. The U-2s conducted their reconnaissance missions in the daytime. We did our best to attack them, but the problem was the extreme altitude at which the U-2 flew: We could not reach them. They usually entered the mainland from the northeast of Shanghai.

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.


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