The Lockheed U-2 is probably the best-known spy-aircraft ever, famous for the exploits of its pilots over or near hostile territories. Indeed, the bold and provocative operations flown by the CIA-operated Lockheed U-2 reconnaissance aircraft over the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics epitomized the rivalry between the United States of America and the Soviet Union during the early to middle Cold War period.
Much has been published about some of the overflights in question. However, exactly how the Soviets, and then the Chinese armed forces, reacted to such operations, and what kind of experiences they went through while not only trying to detect and track, but also intercept and shoot down the high-flying spy-aircraft, is the part of this story that remains largely unknown.
As explained by Krzysztof Dabrowski in his book Hunt for the U-2, the story of the hunt for the U-2 would be incomplete without taking at least a brief look at attempts by manned Chinese interceptors to catch one of the high-flying intruders. The People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) and the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) had essentially sealed the sky against low-flying Republic of China Air Force (ROCAF) aka underway over mainland China just by using their first-generation jets, like the MiG-15s and MiG-17s, in the late 1950s and early 1960s. However, high-flying reconnaissance aircraft remained outside their reach. The situation did not improve even once Moscow – on request from Beijing – granted the licence for the domestic manufacture of the MiG-19P, and provided the necessary technical documentation in October 1957. Although the PRC subsequently launched series production of three variants of these, and greatly improved the over reliability of the original design, the break with the USSR and the subsequent Cultural Revolution resulted in a mass of problems that greatly slowed down their service entry. Correspondingly, the PLAAF and the PLANAF still had next to no MiG-19s in operational service through the early 1960s. Almost the same was valid for the Chinese efforts to obtain the next – and then particularly important – Soviet interceptor-design, and then one that was, at least theoretically capable of reaching the U-2’s operational altitudes: the MiG-21F-13 (NATO reporting name: Fishbed).
The contract for the technology-transfer of the MiG-21F-13 and its Tumansky R-11F-300 engine to China was signed on Mar. 30, 1962 during the short improvement in relations between Beijing and Moscow. It resulted in the delivery of about two dozen jets in the form of knock-down kits for assembly in China. However, before the Soviets were able to transfer all of the technical documentation necessary for their manufacture, relations between Beijing and Moscow cooled again. The subsequent Cultural Revolution almost drove a nail into the coffin of the entire project: whatever engineers were left to work had to resort to reverse engineering of many crucial parts. The available MiG-21F-13s were assembled and pressed into service with the PLAAF, while a few were kept back to be used as specimens for further research and development of their indigenous variant, the J-7.
A successful U-2 interception by a MiG-21F-13 was an act of the highest piloting skill – and a truckload of luck: during the final moments of the intercept in fact the MiG-21F-13 was effectively out of control, underway along a ballistic trajectory, with minimal to no opportunity to acquire the target and open fire. It is unsurprising that at least one US U-2 pilot underway over Cuba in the late 1960s experienced a rude shock when a MiG-21 actually shot over the top of his aircraft before tumbling out of control into the thicker air down below. Still, the new threat was taken seriously enough for the Taiwanese to equip their U-2s with the same Sugar Scoop exhaust cover already introduced to service on USAF U-2s: this was an 18-inch extension of the lower portion of the engine exhaust, applied to shieId the hottest part of the aircraft from infra-red guided air-to-air missiles – such as the R-3S, the principal weapon of the MiG-21F-13.
From what is known, the first successful interception attempt by PLAAF MiG-21F-13s appears to have been staged only on Mar. 14, 1965, when Lieutenant Wu Zaixi (Wu Tsai-hsi) of the 35th Black Cat Squadron reported seeing smoke plumes like those from air-to-air missiles passing by his aircraft. Whether this was the case remains a mystery, but Wu’s aircraft was not damaged and he returned safely. Another, similar incident followed on May 27, 1965, when the cameras of the U-2 piloted by Wang Sijue (Wang His-chueh) actually photographed a Chinese MiG-21F-13 passing below it, almost e enough to touch, yet still too far away to successfully engage. Additional intercept attempts certainly followed, and indeed Beijing seems to have claimed Taiwanese U-2s as shot down on April 1968, in January 1969, on May 16, 1969, and in 1970, although none was actually lost these dates. What is certain is that on Apr. 29, 1971, the U-2 R flown by Lieutenant-Colonel Shen Zongli (Shen Thung-li) was underway at an altitude of 22,265m (73,047ft) into a reconnaissance of Dalian Lushun on the Lianoning insula, when his RWR and the System 20 – a rear-hemisphere infra-red warning device – warned him of a threat from left aft. The pilot made a slight turn to the left, and the warning disappeared. However, a few seconds later there was a new warning this time about a threat from the right after side. It was only at this point in time that the Taiwanese pilot was able to see a MiG-21F-13 alongside his wing – at least for two seconds: the interceptor then dropped down and out of sight.
Ultimately, neither the PLAAF nor the PLANAF ever manage to shoot down any ROCAF U-2s with their manned interceptors. While occasionally capable of reaching the altitude at which the reconnaissance jets were operating, and sometimes getting quite close, even the MiG-21 proved unable to maintain position for long enough to engage successfully. Thus, the efforts by the Chinese pilots were never rewarded with an actual ‘kill.’
Hunt for the U-2 is published by Helion & Company and is available to order here.
Photo credit: U.S. Air Force and Max Smith via Wikipedia
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