For nearly two decades Nationalist pilots flew signals intelligence collection platforms, aerial reconnaissance missions, leaflet drops and agent insertions. The cost to the elite 34th Squadron, which was equipped with the Douglas A-26C/B-26C, P2V-7/RB-69As, C-54s, C-123, C-130, the P-3A armed with Sidewinder air-to-ar missiles and the unarmed B-17G, was considerable. Their mission was to fly at low altitude to evade hostile radar and air interception while the P-3A was restricted to international airspace, at least 40 miles off the coast, to monitor signals traffic. Most flights took place at night from Hsinchu in northern Taiwan, earning the squadron its black bat symbol. Initially, the aircrews had enjoyed several advantages, with fighter pilots heavily committed to the Korean conflict, and poor radar coverage of the coastline, but by 1955 the situation had deteriorated and become much more dangerous. Following the ceasefire more interceptors could be deployed south, and the quality of the air defense radars improved to the point that virtually every take-off was watched electronically by operators on the mainland.
The squadron flew 838 missions with a loss of 148 crew, or two-thirds of the original squadron’s strength, and 15 aircraft. Some crewmen were captured in the People’s Republic of China and eventually returned to Taiwan, and the unit’s last overflight took place on 25 January 1967.
Despite being stood down officially in 1971, as President Richard Nixon prepared to make his historic visit to Mao in Beijing, the Black Bats remained operational and conducted missions over Vietnam, participating between 1971 and 1972 in the CIA’s MAIN STREET project which monitored North Vietnamese communications.
In March 2010 the ashes of five missing aircrew were interred at the Martyr’s Shrine near Taipei, a ceremony that further enhanced the mystique surrounding the Black Bats. Now their story is told, in compelling detail, and the author offers a comprehensive, technical account of the clandestine flights and their aircrew.
Since the air battle of July 1958 over Quemoy, when Chinese MiG-17 Shenyangs were mauled by F-86F Sabres, American reconnaissance aircraft have been based continuously at Taoyuan, near Taipei, to patrol the Straits of Formosa. Initially, three Martin RB-57D were deployed in Nationalist livery, until October 1959, when one was shot down by a MiG-19. In 1962, the RB-57s were withdrawn and replaced by U-2s. Although no exact statistics are available, up to nine U-2s, three RB-57s, and two RF-101s flown from Hsinchu were lost over the mainland. The first U-2 lost was an aircraft that failed to return from a mission over Nanchang in September 1962. Another crashed near Shanghai in September 1962, and others were lost in November 1963, July 1964, January 1965, and September 1967, probably to SA-2 missiles. Two Central Intelligence Agency-trained pilots, Major Ye Changi and Major Zhang Liyi, were captured and “rehabilitated.” The wreckage of four aircraft, equipped with long-range oblique cameras, were put on public display in Beijing in April 1965. The CIA’s Taiwanese pilots, known as “black bats,” flew an estimated 800 clandestine missions between 1953 and 1967. The U-2Rs were flown by Taiwanese pilots until October 1974, when the remaining aircraft were returned to the United States at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base.
Chinese Pilot Han Decai interviewed by Bob Bergin Air & Space Magazine May 2012
Was your assignment to Wuxi related to the night incursions of Taiwanese aircraft that were going on at this time?
Yes, it was related. We got the MiG-17bis without radar. We also received a radar equipped MiG-17 from the Soviet Union, the PF model, which was used to attack the low-altitude intruders from Taiwan. China was developing its own aircraft at his time, the Model 56, which was based on the MiG-17.
But my squadron’s main target was the U-2. The U-2s conducted their reconnaissance missions in the daytime. We did our best to attack them, but the problem was the extreme altitude at which the U-2 flew: We could not reach them. They usually entered the mainland from the northeast of Shanghai.
What kind of tactics did you use against the U-2?
Chasing a U-2 made for a pretty dull flight. Every time a U-2 reconnaissance flight was detected in our sector, we sent up two aircraft to track it. We could go up to our maximum altitude of 15,600 meters [51,168 feet] but still not see the U-2, which was flying above 20,000 meters [65,600 feet].
The Russians used zoom climbs [diving, then climbing steeply] to try to reach the U-2. Did you employ that maneuver?
There was nothing we could do to try to reach the U-2 except zoom climb. I could get to 18,000 meters [59,040 feet] in a zoom climb, but that still left a big gap between my airplane and the U-2.
I recall from the Russian experience that at the top of a zoom climb, the aircraft was no longer a stable firing platform.
That’s exactly the way it was. The maximum speed of the MiG-17 is Mach 1.44. I would start the zoom climb by diving from 16,000 meters [52,480 feet]. At 15,000 meters [49,200 feet] I would pull up and start to climb. When I was climbing, I tried to take my angle of climb to 15 degrees. My speed would fall off to 350 kilometers [per hour], and there was nothing I could do after that. At that speed [217 mph] the airplane became difficult to control. In the end, we had to leave the job to our surface-to-air missiles.
Did you burn up any engines, as I’ve heard the Russians did in zoom climbs?
That was almost unavoidable, but it didn’t happen to me. We were fortunate that we were able to develop our missile artillery, and that we could use the surface-to-air missile to bring down the U-2.
Five U-2s were shot down with Russian-developed SA-2 surface-to-air missiles of an early generation, with limited range. This made the Chinese achievement quite remarkable. To hit the U-2 at its altitude, the missile practically had to be launched from almost directly underneath its flight path. How did you manage that?
It was just like guerrilla warfare. Our missile launchers were fixed on military trucks and could be moved around. We had some sense of where the priority targets of interest to the U-2s were, and that’s where we located our launchers. We generally fired at the U-2 when it was within a range of 15 kilometers [49,212 feet], and we used certain tactics to bring the U-2 into that range. For example, when a U-2 was detected in an area where a missile launcher was located, we cut off all the radars in that area so the U-2 would not be alerted to their presence. The U-2 was not very maneuverable. When it started getting within range, we would suddenly turn on the radars, and it was too late for the U-2 to react.
The PLAAF’s other problem at the time—also not easily solved—was the low altitude flights, particularly by the P2Vs. I understand the PLAAF used Ground-Controlled Intercept techniques. The MiGs were directed into position by the GCI controller using ground radars. To avoid detection by the P2V, the MiG would not turn on his radar until he was in position right behind the intruder.
That is exactly right. But that tactic was not effective; it really did not work very well. In fact, the P2Vs we did bring down, did not come about because of radar, but because we saw them. I can also remember an instance where a PLAAF pilot brought down a B-17 because he just happened to see the exhaust flame.
Our airborne radar was not reliable, and it had other faults. The range was short: the radar could only be used at about 1,000 meters [3,280 feet]. And because the intruders flew so low—sometimes a low as 50 meters [164 feet], there was a lot of ground clutter and it was very difficult to track them.
The radar in our MiGs was effective only if we were below the altitude of the enemy aircraft, looking up at him. If we were above him, even just slightly, and put our aircraft’s nose down, the radar would pick up ground clutter, and we could not make out the target. To make the radar effective, we had to modify it, to eliminate the lower part of the scan, and use only the upper part.
The intruder could also elude the ground controller. When we turned on our airborne radar, the PV2 would detect it, and immediately dive away. Then he would drop metal foil, and that would disrupt the ground control radar, and cause the controller to lose him.
The PLAAF pilots really risked their lives flying during these night flights, chasing the intruders. We were often flying just 50 meters [164 feet] above ground level. I still remember one P2V I chased. It was April 13, 1964, a day of shame for me that I will never forget. A P2V entered China at the mouth of the Yangtze, and flew west along the river. It kept very low, sometimes just 100 meters [328 feet] above the hilltops.
I was at our airbase at Nanjing and was ordered to take off to intercept the enemy. I was flying a MiG-17 PF with radar. Senior PLAAF officers were visiting the airfield at the time, and the PLAAF Chief of Staff was in the control tower when I took off. Because the area around Nanjing is where we expected enemy intruders, it was where we regularly did our training. I knew the area well, and seemed the ideal place to shoot down an enemy aircraft.
I took off, turned on the radar, and entered the clouds. The base of the clouds was just 100 meters [328 feet] above the ground. I turned off my navigation lights, and leveled off the aircraft at 600 meters [1,968 feet]. I could see nothing. After a few minutes, the GCI controller ordered me to fly at the height of 450 meters [1,476 feet] and I descended. It was difficult to get into position. I was flying at a speed of 400 kilometers an hour [248 miles per hour]; the intruder’s speed was 280 [174 mph].
I followed the P2V along the Yangtze River, to the coastal area in Quanzhou. The clouds were down to an altitude of 75 meters [250 feet]. Soon I was at an altitude of 400 meters [1,312 feet], and the P2V was just 50 meters [164 feet] higher that I was. We stayed in the clouds and I had to depend on my instincts. When I thought I was in a good position, I turned on the aiming antenna. He immediately knew I was there, and dove away.
Did you see the target aircraft at all?
I never saw the enemy aircraft. It was at night and we were always in the clouds. I think I was quite a good pilot in those years, but I could still not bring down a P2V. When I landed, the PLAAF commander-in-chief and the chief of staff were waiting for me. I told them I greatly regretted what I failed to do that night. I had failed my country and our leader. The chief of staff said I had done my best, but I felt I owed a big debt.
How long did you do that kind of night flying?
The mission against the Taiwanese intruders lasted a long time—until we came to a kind of tacit agreement with Taiwan that turned into a truce. The Taiwan government did not send recon airplanes over the mainland, and we did not bomb the islands near Taiwan. I flew these missions from 1961 to 1968. In 1968, I started to fly the MiG-19. The MiG-19 was also used to go after the PV2.
Was the MiG-19 any more successful than the MiG-17?
The MiG-19 was bigger and faster. It was more difficult, and even dangerous to fly at night. China’s development of this aircraft had been going on since 1958. In 1959, I led a squadron of MiG-19s over Tiananmen Square on our National Day. It was the tenth anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic, and a great honor for me.
During this period of the night intruders, the PLAAF tried several experiments. One was using the World War II-era Tupolev Tu-2 light bomber as a night fighter.
I have no knowledge of that.
Then there was the Tupolev Tu-4, the Russian copy of the American World War II B-29 bomber that could stay in the air a long time.
We tried to use the TU-4 to pursue and attack the P2V. This project was not successful. The Tu-4 was just too big and too slow, and it was accident-prone. At least one of them flew into the ground.
And then there were the Russian Ilyushin IL-28 jet bombers that were used as “illuminators.” The idea was to use IL-28s to fly in front of the PV2 and drop flares that would light it up so the MiG fighter chasing it could see it.
Yes, that’s what we tried to do, but again it was not very successful. It was not flares the Il-28 would drop, but a searchlight mounted on the IL-28. The IL-28 would try to fly above and ahead of the PV2, and then turn on the searchlight to light up the P2Vs fuselage so the chasing MiG pilot could see it.
In practice, this was very difficult to do. It was all a matter of coordination. There were three people involved: the pilot of the IL-28, the pilot of the MiG interceptor, and GCI controller. The controller and both pilots first had to find the target. Then the IL-28 pilot had to get above and ahead of the target, and light it up as the MiG was trying to get into position to fire. The controller on the ground had to follow the P2V and simultaneously move the IL-28 and the MiG into position on an airplane they couldn’t see. When the IL-28’s searchlight was turned on and illuminated the P2V’s fuselage, the MiG already had to be in position to fire.
What else was tried against the P2Vs?
We wracked our brains to come up with ideas to that would defeat the P2V missions. For example, we tried to set up ambushes in remote areas. We knew that the P2V would always fly at low altitude. Over time, we became very familiar with the kind of routes they needed to fly. We would concentrate our anti-aircraft artillery in the areas we believed they were likely to fly over, and position the guns in such a way that when the P2V entered the area, our artillery could fire at it from different directions.
The P2Vs flew long missions. How was PLAAF coordination handled as the intruder passed from sector to sector?
There were searchlights on the ground as well as radar, but the radars were the most important. They were set up in a chain that allowed us to track the intruders over their entire route.
There were three MiG squadrons that were used against the P2Vs: in Nanjing, Shanghai, and a third in Xuzhou, the northern part of Jiangsu province. Each squadron was responsible for its own sector of the sky. The squadrons were kept on alert, and when a PV2 entered a squadron’s sector, that squadron was ordered into action. Because the P2Vs flew at such a low altitude and could elude the radars, its known movements were coordinated from sector to sector.
How much warning would you get of an incoming P2V mission?
We had intelligence collection that gave us advance warning of an intruder flight. We could intercept signals intelligence that provided indications of an intruder fight, long before that flight took off. From the preparations that we knew were being made on the ground in Taiwan, we could do some calculations and determine when the aircraft would take off and also get some idea of its planned route.
Where would your radars first pick up an intruder?
We could pick them up only at very short range, about 100 kilometers [62 miles] out at sea. Even with a radar station on top of mountain, we still had difficulty tracking incoming aircraft. The P2Vs stayed down very low as they came in, and were hard to pick up. And with the P2Vs being that low, our radar would pick up strong reflections from the waves. In that clutter the PV2 was difficult to track. There were many difficulties that we had to overcome.
And it was also always difficult for the Taiwanese aircrews. They always risked their lives intruding our airspace. These were very dangerous missions for them, and they became even more dangerous for the Taiwanese as PLAAF units all over the country established their own night flying squadrons. It became routine for PLAAF pilots to fly at night.
In overcoming those difficulties, it would seem that the PLAAF created an effective air defense system.
Over time we established an integrated air defense system. We could track the enemy at low altitude and at high altitude. We incorporated our surface-to-air missiles into our air defense system. Then it became really dangerous for Taiwan intruder aircraft to fly over mainland China. Eventually, it was no longer feasible for the Taiwan Air Force to fly intruder missions into mainland China.
What were lessons of this era? What did Taiwan accomplish through these intruder missions that were designed to drop propaganda and agents, and collect electronic intelligence?
What Taiwan achieved was probably negligible. Their intrusion flights affected relatively small areas of China. In the end, all the propaganda leaflets they dropped gained them nothing. Virtually all the agents they dropped were quickly captured by our local forces. Taiwan had some success in the air over China in the early days, before the PLAAF was established. Once the PLAAF was in existence, Taiwan no longer had any significant success.