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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I was at our airbase at Nanjing and was ordered to take off to intercept the enemy. I was flying a MiG-17 PF with radar. Senior PLAAF officers were visiting the airfield at the time, and the PLAAF Chief of Staff was in the control tower when I took off. Because the area around Nanjing is where we expected enemy intruders, it was where we regularly did our training. I knew the area well, and seemed the ideal place to shoot down an enemy aircraft.

I took off, turned on the radar, and entered the clouds. The base of the clouds was just 100 meters [328 feet] above the ground. I turned off my navigation lights, and leveled off the aircraft at 600 meters [1,968 feet]. I could see nothing. After a few minutes, the GCI controller ordered me to fly at the height of 450 meters [1,476 feet] and I descended. It was difficult to get into position. I was flying at a speed of 400 kilometers an hour [248 miles per hour]; the intruder’s speed was 280 [174 mph].

I followed the P2V along the Yangtze River, to the coastal area in Quanzhou. The clouds were down to an altitude of 75 meters [250 feet]. Soon I was at an altitude of 400 meters [1,312 feet], and the P2V was just 50 meters [164 feet] higher that I was. We stayed in the clouds and I had to depend on my instincts. When I thought I was in a good position, I turned on the aiming antenna. He immediately knew I was there, and dove away.

Did you see the target aircraft at all?

I never saw the enemy aircraft.  It was at night and we were always in the clouds. I think I was quite a good pilot in those years, but I could still not bring down a P2V. When I landed, the PLAAF commander-in-chief and the chief of staff were waiting for me. I told them I greatly regretted what I failed to do that night. I had failed my country and our leader. The chief of staff said I had done my best, but I felt I owed a big debt.

How long did you do that kind of night flying?

The mission against the Taiwanese intruders lasted a long time—until we came to a kind of tacit agreement with Taiwan that turned into a truce. The Taiwan government did not send recon airplanes over the mainland, and we did not bomb the islands near Taiwan. I flew these missions from 1961 to 1968. In 1968, I started to fly the MiG-19. The MiG-19 was also used to go after the PV2.

Was the MiG-19 any more successful than the MiG-17?

The MiG-19 was bigger and faster. It was more difficult, and even dangerous to fly at night. China’s development of this aircraft had been going on since 1958. In 1959, I led a squadron of MiG-19s over Tiananmen Square on our National Day. It was the tenth anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic, and a great honor for me.

During this period of the night intruders, the PLAAF tried several experiments. One was using the World War II-era Tupolev Tu-2 light bomber as a night fighter.


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