The night Chinese scrambled 12 MiGs to intercept a lone CIA B-17 Spy Plane. They failed, and two of them crashed.

The night Chinese scrambled 12 MiGs to intercept a lone CIA B-17 Spy Plane. They failed, and two of them crashed.

By Dario Leone
Apr 10 2024
Sponsored by: Schiffer Military
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The MiG-17

The Soviet MiG-17 (NATO code-name “Fresco”) was designed to replace the famous MiG-15 of the Korean War. Although similar in appearance to the MiG-15, the MiG-17 had more sharply swept wings, a longer fuselage, an afterburner, and better speed and handling characteristics. The first flight of a MiG-17 prototype took place in January 1950, and production began in late 1951. The first operational MiG-17s appeared in 1952, but they were not available in sufficient quantities to take part in the Korean War. Five versions of the aircraft eventually were produced. The MiG-17 has served in the air arms of at least 20 nations throughout the world – including China.

After Mao’s communists took control of mainland China in 1949, the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) developed an uneasy partnership with the nationalist Chinese government on Taiwan for covert air operations over the mainland – dropping agents and propaganda, and collecting signals, imagery and nuclear intelligence. But Communist China’s air defences reacted with determination and ingenuity to the unwelcome intruders.

CIA B-17 Spy Planes

The night Chinese scrambled 12 MiGs to intercept a lone CIA B-17 Spy Plane. They failed, and two of them crashed.

In fact, as explained by Chris Pocock with Clarence Fu in the book The Black Bats CIA Spy Flights Over China from Taiwan 1951-1969, Chinese military technicians adapted Soviet hardware as well as tactics. During 1957, the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) 11th Aviation School and the 14th and 18th Air Divisions worked to improve the performance of the newly-arrived MiG-17PF fighters. The shortcomings of this aircraft’s RP-5 intercept radar were already apparent to Western intelligence as well the Chinese. First, the effective range was only two-and-a-half miles. Second, operating below about 3,000 feet it could not discriminate aircraft targets from ground clutter.

One solution explored by the Chinese to the second problem was to inhibit the radar’s -14 degree downward scan in elevation. The upward scan started from two degrees below the horizontal, and might still be adequate for interception, provided that the MiG pilot was well-vectored by Ground-controlled interception (GCI) to fly towards the target at the same altitude. But the PLAAF soon realised that, in order to intercept a relatively slow-flying target like the B-17, the MiG-17 had to be flown at an Angle-of-Attack (AoA) of 4-5 degrees to keep it from stalling. At this attitude, the -2 degree scan was useless, unless the target was above the interceptor. Since the intruders from Taiwan were flying at 1,000 feet they were usually below the interceptors. And it would be suicide for the MiG pilots to try and fly lower at night.

The Chinese pilots and technicians thought again. The downward scan of the radar was inhibited by only seven degrees. When the MiG flew at 4-5 degrees AoA the radar can was effectively 2-3 degrees below horizontal. This could provide a scan of the target without including lots of ground clutter.

12 Chinese MiGs scrambled to intercept a lone CIA B-17 Spy Plane

B-17G print
This print is available in multiple sizes from – CLICK HERE TO GET YOURS. B-17G Flying Fortress – 42-31076, LG-V “Chief Sly’s Son” 91st BG, 322nd BS – 1944

The radar-equipped MiG-17PFs were thrown into the battle to intercept the intruders. On the night of Mar. 13, 1958, one Mig-17PF flown by Wang Guo Shan of the 18th Division was the PLAAF’s last chance against a 34th Squadron (Black Bat) B-17 that had flown for six hours over the southern provinces. No fewer than eleven MiG-15s had previously been scrambled further north when Wang took off from Shati airfield, in Guangdong. As the B-17 left the mainland and flew low out to sea Wang pursued it for 50 miles. Running short of fuel, he was directed by GCI to land at Shuixi airfield, on the Leizhou peninsula north of Hainan Island. But fog rolled over the airfield and Wang crashed and was killed as he tried to approach.

It was the second fatal loss of the night for the PLAAF. Earlier a MiG-15bis flown by Yang Yu Jiang took off from Changsha to act as a radio relay aircraft in the hunt for the B-17. Contact with the pilot was lost soon after takeoff, and the MiG crashed near Datuopu airfield at 2300.

The Black Bats CIA Spy Flights Over China from Taiwan 1951-1969 is published by Schiffer Publishing and is available to order here.

The night Chinese scrambled 12 MiGs to intercept a lone CIA B-17 Spy Plane. They failed, and two of them crashed.

Photo credit: U.S. Air Force

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Dario Leone

Dario Leone

Dario Leone is an aviation, defense and military writer. He is the Founder and Editor of “The Aviation Geek Club” one of the world’s most read military aviation blogs. His writing has appeared in The National Interest and other news media. He has reported from Europe and flown Super Puma and Cougar helicopters with the Swiss Air Force.

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