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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Later, the Taiwanese even sent in balloons to drop propaganda leaflets, and shooting them down was like shooting sitting ducks. They were as big as a basketball court, and flew at an average altitude of 15,000 meters to 16,000 [49,200 feet to 52,480]. It was not difficult for a MiG-19 to shoot them down with its cannon. Of course, I did not do that myself. It was the other pilots!

Where were you assigned after you completed your MiG-17 missions?

In 1968, I was promoted to be the chief of a MiG-19 division. In 1978, I went on to Shanxi, also as commander of another division. In 1980, I returned to Shanghai, as commander in chief of the 19th Air Command, a position that I held for three years. In 1983, I became deputy commander of Nanjing Air Command for another 10 years, until I retired.

What was your best job?

I always preferred to be a pilot over being a commander on the ground. I regarded myself as a soldier, and always did my job, whatever it was.  One thing I am very proud of is that I never damaged an aircraft during my years as a pilot in 2,300 hours of flying. I really loved my career as a pilot.

What do you think of China’s new J-20 stealth aircraft?

I was invited to watch the J-20’s first flight at Chengdu, and I asked the engineers a few questions. Fighter aircraft seem to have reached their maximum limits. Whether the aircraft is made in the U.S. or Russia, there is not much difference between the latest aircraft from these countries. Further development is limited by the physical stress a pilot’s body can tolerate. The U.S. is leading the way in the use of unmanned aircraft. I think there is a role for unmanned aircraft in China.

Between 1949 and 1964, ten of the aircraft engaged in penetration missions from Taiwan were lost over the Chinese mainland, including three P2Vs, two of them in air-to-air engagements. Taiwan suspended its penetration flights of the mainland in 1964, although flights along China’s coast were made through 1966, when this joint program with the U.S. was terminated. The U-2 flights continued.

Taiwan’s aircrews displayed much courage in carrying out their low-level penetration missions, but the value of the program is questionable. Of the hundreds of agents and special operations troops that were dropped, apparently none survived; the propaganda drops were largely ignored by mainland residents Electronic and other technical intelligence collection would have given the U.S. a good picture of the PRC’s growing military strength and its rapidly developing nuclear program, although much of the intelligence on the latter would have come from the high-flying U-2s. An unintended consequence of the penetrations was the motivation it gave the PRC leadership to build its air force and to create an effective air defense system.

General Han retired from the PLAAF in 1993, and lives in Shanghai, where he has made a reputation as a calligrapher.


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