Since 1949 when the Chinese Communist forces expelled the Chinese Nationalist forces from mainland China to the island of Taiwan, the US and allied ability to monitor the developments taking place on the mainland of China was drastically reduced. However, because of the People’s Republic of China’s (PRC) significance and potential, and its close alliance with the Soviet Union, Washington and Langley considered it ‘vitally important’ to keep an eye on the events there. Considering this situation, reconnaissance aircraft were the best – and, sometimes the only – means for the US to obtain the authoritative information sought. Thus, it can be concluded that the reasons for aerial reconnaissance of the PRC were in essence the same as for the Overflights of the USSR.
As explained by Krzysztof Dabrowsky in the book Hunt For the U-2, before long, the skies of the PRC were frequented by a number of uninvited aerial ‘visitors’, ranging from RAF Spitfires flying out of Hong Kong, to diverse transports and reconnaissance jets of what became the Republic of China Air Force (ROCAF), to U-2s that made a number of overflights starting in May 1957. These flights were usually launched from Peshawar airfield in northern Pakistan. Naturally, Chinese detected the incursions and undertook measures to confront the intruders: however, while regularly successful against low-flying nocturnal incursions by slow ROCAF aircraft, they experienced significant problems with intercepting high-flying reconnaissance aircraft. It was only on Feb. 18, 1958, that a Taiwanese-operated RB-57A fell victim to two MiG-15bis or MiG-17F interceptors of the People’s Liberation Army Naval Air Force (PLANAF), over Shandong. Early on, the inability of the armed forces of the PRC to effectively combat such targets was hardly surprising. Not only the PLANAF but especially the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) – the air force of Communist China – was almost exclusively equipped with same Soviet-made interceptors, such as the MiG-15 and MiG-17, which had already failed to catch the CIA’s U-2s overflying Eastern Europe. Therefore, high-altitude reconnaissance aircraft provided by US to the Taiwanese initially proved capable of roaming over mainland China with impunity.
The first advanced type capable of operating at high altitudes to enter service with the ROCAF became the RB-57D. After a number of pilots n No. 4 Squadron were trained to fly it, three such aircraft were supplied by the CIA within the frame of Project Diamond Lil in 1958. Starting in early 1959, they began undertaking deep penetrations of PRC’s airspace, usually at altitudes of 20,000m (65,616ft) or more. Unsurprisingly, they promptly proved to be operating out of the reach of the PLAAF’s and the PLANAF’s interceptors, not to mention traditional anti-aircraft artillery. However, nothing lasts forever and the `Reds’ were about to come up with a worthy answer to the challenge. The Communist leaders in Beijing requested assistance from Moscow: the Soviets responded quickly, and in late 1958 and early 1959, delivered the first out of a total of five SA-75 Dvina SAM-systems, and one training set, together with 62 V-750 (1D) and V-750V (11D) missiles, and all the necessary support equipment.
The 1st Surface-to-Air Guided Missile Battalion of the PLA was declared operational on Sep. 20, 1959, closely followed by the 2nd Surface-to-Air Guided Missile Battalion. Right from the start, both units were entirely manned by the Chinese, without any kind of Soviet assistance.
The first two PLA SAM-units became operational at the time that the aerial incursions by the RB-57Ds of No. 4 Squadron ROCAF were overflying even Beijing in June of 1959. Working methodically, the PLA positioned its few SAM-sites in the vicinity of the Chinese capital, so as to cover the most likely routes used by the Taiwanese reconnaissance aircraft.
Regardless of how eager the PLA SAM-operators were to prove their skills, nothing happened. For two weeks after their deployment outside Beijing, not a single overflight took place. Indeed, nothing happened eves during the most-tense period of 1959 – the celebrations marking the 10th anniversary of the People’s Republic of China between 1 and 4 October, when it was thought that Taiwan was likely to make a provocative aerial incursion. No unwelcome “guest” from across the Strait of Formosa appeared. Then on the morning of Oct. 5, 1959, an aircraft flying from the direction of Taiwan entered PRC airspace over Fujian province. The PLAAF’s radars tracked the intruder as it flew in the direction of Nanking, and interceptors were scrambled. However, because the RB-57D maintained an altitude of 20,000-21,000 meters they were unable to intercept. Meanwhile the airspace violator Yangtse River and came within about 500km of Beijing. For a while, it appeared the hour of the SAMs was near, when – the Taiwanese turned in the direction of Shangai, and flew away, never approaching within range of the SA-75s. The Chinese were not only disappointed but above all very worried that their SAMs were somehow exposed. However, after some deliberation they decided not to make any hasty moves but to wait for another chance – and as subsequent events showed it was the right decision.
Two days later, on Oct. 7, 1959, in an almost exact repetition tither of the previous event, the Chinese radar operators detected a high- altitude aerial intruder. Because of the obvious importance of the events unfolding the efforts to deal with the airspace violator were coordinated by the general staff of the PLA. Even though experience had so far demonstrated that manned interceptors were unable to catch an RB-57D, they were ordered into the air and took up the chase hoping that the reconnaissance aircraft might lose altitude PLA because of a malfunction or for some other reason. Meanwhile the intruder, which was indeed an RB-57D (ROCAF serial 5643, US FY serial 53-3978) – piloted by Captain Ying Chin Wong – continued to in the direction of Beijing and this time it did not turn away. Soon it became clear that the Taiwanese aircraft would come into range of the SAMs and for this reason the manned interceptors were ordered to disengage thus clearing the sky for the missiles.
The RB-57D was on a course that would take it into the range of the 2nd Surface-to-Air Guided Missile Battalion, commanded by Yue Zhenhua. As the distance dropped to 200km he received the order to destroy the reconnaissance aircraft. The battalion’s radars picked up the target from a range of 115 km: the range was dropping rapidly, and when it decreased to 41km Yue Zhenhua gave the command to launch a salvo of three missiles. The first V-750 lifted off at 12:04hrs, soon followed by two more. About 40 seconds later, as the target was at a distance of 29-30km, the first of them scored a hit: the target changed course and began rapidly losing altitude. When it was down to about 5,000 metres, it disappeared from the radar screens, and was correctly assessed as ‘disintegrated’. The destruction of the RB-57D was promptly reported up the chain of command of the PLA, and the general Staff officers soon arrived on the scene with help of a helicopter. The remains of the downed aircraft were strewn over a radius of 5,000 to 6,000 metres and identified as those of an RB-57D. As many as 2,471 shrapnel holes were found in the pieces of wreckage that were collected: it was unsurprising that the reconnaissance aircraft fell apart. Unfortunately, the incident also proved fatal for the Taiwanese pilot.
Hunt for the U-2 Interceptions of Lockheed U-2 Reconnaissance aircraft over USSR, Cuba and People’s Republic of China, 1959-1968 is published by Helion & Company and is available to order here.
Photo credit: U.S. Army and U.S. Air Force
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