The Lost Black Cats

The following is a gripping tale about American spy planes over China during the cold war era.  This is very interesting because it showed how a low-tech country adapted its very limited resources to achieve results.  Here are the five "kills" achieved by the People's Liberation Army Air Force against the Black Cat Squadron of U-2 airplanes based in Taiwan and flew by ROC pilots.

(ChineseNewsNet)  The Black Cat squadron flew a total of 102 missions.  Five U-2's were shot down by the PLAAF, with three fatalities and two captures.  Seven other pilots died during training or equipment malfunctions during missions.  Among those trained prior to 1968, the casualty rate was higher than 50%.

(ChineseNewsNet)  [summarized translation]

The Black Cat Squadron was a group of pilots from the Republic of China who had been trained by the Americans to fly the U-2 spy planes.  The first operation was mounted on January 13, 1962.  Flying at 75,000 feet with a range of 4,000 miles, the U-2 planes were beyond the reach from most conventional weapons and airplanes.

Meanwhile, the PLA had established the PLAAF 1st Surface-to-Air Guide Missile Battalion in October 6, 1958.  Later on, the Beijing and Nanjing military districts also formed the 2nd and 3rd Battalions respectively.  These battalions owned only five sets of SAM-2 guided missile launch platforms and a total of 62 guided missiles.  In October 1959, the battalions were secretly deployed in the Beijing area during the 10th anniversary celebration of the founding of the People's Republic of China.

In October 7, 1959, the PLAAF was able to use 3 SAM-2 missiles, which have an accuracy rate of only 2%, to shoot down an American made RB-57D spy plane.  This was how the U-2 came into the picture.

On the first mission, Chen Huai-sheng took the U-2 plane to northwestern China to look for the strategic guide missile base in Kansu.  After searching for more than 2 hours near the target area and with fuel running out, he found the launch pads in the middle of the desert, took the photographs and successfully returned to Taiwan where he was personally greeted in Taoyuan by then Defense Minister Jiang Jing-guo.

Generally speaking, when the Americans spied on the Russians, they only needed to follow the railroad tracks because Russian large-scale facilities were usually located near the major transportation routes.  But the Chinese strategic weapons were usually located in desert areas with no other human signs.  Thus, the ROC pilots had to spend 8 to 9 hours at high altitude while flying the airplane, working on the electronic interference equipment and continuously looking for the targets.  If they were careless, the airplane could lose attitude and they would be attacked by the MIG fighters.

At the time, the PROC had better radar systems than Taiwan.  As soon as the U-2 took off from Taoyuan, the PROC radars picked them up immediately.  When the U-2 entered mainland airspace, they would be monitored by the long-range strategic radars as well as being followed by MIG 19 jet fighters.  But at the time, the PLA lacked any high-altitude weaponry.  Although they had three Surface-to-Air Guided Missile Battalions, their guided missiles only had a radius of 25 kilometers whereas the U-2 could roam over all of China.

However, the PLAAF deployed their limited resources to maximal effect.

In July 1962, the PLAAF analyzed the routes of the U-2 missions.  Of the 11 missions made in the first half of 1962, 8 passed through the city of Nanchang.  The PLAAF then moved the battalions into the Nanchang area under the disguise of a geological drilling team.

The routes of the missions flew by one Black Cat pilot

The PLAAF had been correct.  The Americans and the ROC believed that there was an airplane manufacturing factory in Nanchang.  Since the city was on the way between Taiwan and northwestern China, the U-2 planes had been passing through Nanchang and there had been no incidents over the city.  On September 7, 1962, the PLAAF set up the trap by transferring a bomber squadron from Nanjing to Nanchang.  The CIA and the ROC Ministry of Defense became very interested.  

On September 8, a U-2 crossed the Taiwan straits, headed towards Kunming and then suddenly sprinted towards Nanchang.  The PLAAF 2nd Surface-to-Air Guide Missile Battalion was lying in wait.  But when the U-2 reached Guilin, it suddenly turned and headed right back to Taiwan.  Was the trap detected?  Actually, there had been a mechanical problem on that plane.

On the next day, Chen Huai-sheng took off in a U-2 from Taoyuan and headed into Fujian.  When he got near Nanchang, he made a sudden turn towards Beijing to confuse the PLAAF.  When he reached Hebei province, he suddenly made an about-turn and headed towards Nanchang.  But this time, he ran into a trap.  Three guided missiles rose up to meet him and the U-2 ran right into the death web of 3,600 pieces of shrapnel.

Upon learning about the death of Chen, then Defense Minister Jiang Jing-guo wrote the following lines:

"Even if you are dead, I don't want to sorrowful.  Death cannot keep us apart forever."

The similarity of these words to the lyrics of the mainland Chinese song "The Blood-Stained Spirit" is uncanny.

At the time, there were only two U-2 planes based in Taiwan, so they had lost half of the equipment.  The Americans sent over a replacement aircraft equipped with System 12, the first-generational electronic warning system that was geared towards monitoring the SAM missile radar guidance systems.

In mid-March 1963, as the Chinese nuclear bomb plans headed into the final stage, a U-2 set out from ROK to reach Lanzhou.  At the time, PLAAF 4th battalion was stationed there to protect the uranium 235 production system.  When the SAM missile radar guidance systems turned towards the U-2, System 12 issued a warning and the U-2 pilot veered away and left a big figure 8 on the sky before leaving.

On June 3, the U-2 returned to Kansu.  The PLAAF locked onto the U-2 twice, but the plane made two S-shaped moves to evade just when the battalion was about to launch.

After losing track of the U-2 planes twice in a row, the PLAAF believed that there must be some 'gadget' on the planes that knew about the missile radars.  The notions of "electronic alert," "electronic countermeasures" and "electronic warfare" did not yet exist, but the PLAAF decided to use the Mao Zedong thought of "concentrating one's superior forces to destroy the enemy"!  Just as the PLAAF battalions were brought to Beijing during the national celebrations in October 1958, the PLAAF concentrated all four battalions into the Lanzhou area.

On September 25, Lee Nan-ping flew his U-2 into the Lanzhou area.  At that time, the battalions had formed a circle of ambush.  When the SAM radar systems locked in on the U-2, System 12 once against gave warning and Lee was able to evade.

Since the PLAAF knew nothing about System 12, they could not develop the appropriate electronic counter-countermeasures.  But the PLAAF was good at adapting primitive weaponry to defeat superior forces (e.g. rifles and cannons against tanks and airplanes).  Upon analysis of the data, they realized that the U-2 had a delayed reaction time from the moment that the missile radar locked on to making the evasive movements.  There was a delay of 18 seconds.  If the missiles could be launched in under 18 seconds, the U-2 can be shot down!

But according to the procedural rules set by the Russians, it took about 8 minutes from the time that the enemy aircraft reached within a 135 kilometer range to launch.  So the PLAAF decided to throw out the Russian book -- they would turn the radar on only when the enemy aircraft came within 40 kilometers and they would complete all the steps within 10 seconds.  After rehearsing many times, the PLAAF soldiers achieved the standard.  The four battalions were now deployed to set up a defensive perimeter between Jiangxi and Jiangsu provinces.

On November 1, 1963 Yeh Chang-di took his U-2 towards the northwest.  Everything was fine but when he returned, PLAAF 2nd battalion turned on their radar suddenly and launched three missiles.  Within eight seconds, Yeh heard the sound of a big explosion, was tossed outside of the plane, lost consciousness, regained it and opened his parachute.  He was captured by the PROC militia.

After shooting down the second U-2, the PLAAF got their hands on System 12.  This was immediately sent over to the electronics research institute of the defense department.  Once the researchers saw what System 12 did, they developed a counter-measure system, wherein they used fake frequencies to track the U-2 planes and then used other frequencies to guide the missiles.

In May 1964, the PLAAF 2nd battalion went from Inner Mongolia to Fujian under the disguise of a geological team drilling for well-water.  On June 7, two U-2 airplanes took off together, one northbound and one southbound.  PLAAF 2nd battalion loaded their four missiles onto the launching pad and waited patiently.

On one U-2 plane, Lee Nan-ping headed towards the Sino-Vietnam border, then he turned back to Hong Kong and began taking photographs along the Guangzhou and Fujian coasts.  At the time, there was a squadron of MIG's following him from below but he was not concerned about them.  He counted on being able to reach Fujian and then turning back quickly to Taoyuan.  Suddenly, the electronic warning system showed that missiles had been launched.  His final words were "System 12 warning lights have come on!"  Then his airplane vanished from the radar screen.  The ejection seat failed to work, and Lee died when the plane crashed.

With the losses of Yeh and Lee, the CIA realized that the Chinese had a handle on System 12.  So it was now time to introduce System 13, which had the capability to emit false signals to interfere with and confuse radar tracking systems, giving incorrect information about speed, altitude and direction.  System 13 was installed in September 1964. 

The problem with System 13 was that it was heavier.  This meant that the U-2 covered less distance with the heavier payload: from Taoyuan, the System 13-equipped U-2 could reach only the eastern part of Kansu province and short of being able to photograph the western part where the nuclear weapon testing was going on.  On October 14, 1963, China exploded its first atomic bomb.  The Americans had to fly their own plane from India to collect data.  

In November, the Black Cat Squadron finally returned to China.  In order to protect the U-2 airplanes even better, the airplanes were now equipped to take infra-red photographs at night.  But the equipment was heavier, and this meant that the airplanes had even less coverage than before.  So the U-2 airplanes were taking off from South Korea, going into northwestern China and then returning to land in Taoyuan.

On January 10, 1965, Chang Li-yi set out and was shot down south of Beijing.  In the spring of 1965, the PLAAF began to introduce J7 fighters, and these can go almost high enough to threaten the U-2's.  The Chinese also began to use infra-red-based guided missiles.  On September 9, 1967, Huang Jung-Bei was shot down near Jiaxing in Zhejiang province with a Chinese-made Red Flag 2 guided missile.

After September 1967, the Black Cat squadron no longer flew over Chinese territory.  Instead, they flew over the open seas outside of guided missile range to take photographs of mainland China.  In February 2, 1972, when President Richard Nixon visited Beijing, he promised to cease all reconnaissance flights over mainland China.  In the spring of 1974, the Black Cat squadron was officially disbanded.

While the Black Cat squadron was thought to have served in the Cold War, it may have ultimately brought peace.  (ChineseNewsNet)  In Henry Kissinger's book The White House Years (p.700): "Indeed our intelligence shows a continuing improvement in military capabilities along the Sino-Soviet border, and this fact no doubt plays some role in Chinese willingness to go along with signs of normalization of state relations ..."  It was the U-2 that brought the intelligence to show increasing tension along the Sino-Soviet border.  Would President Richard Nixon have gone to Beijing if he didn't have this intelligence?