The Lockheed U-2 high-altitude reconnaissance plane, nicknamed the “Dragon Lady,” holds a special place in the heart of the Republic of China (ROC) Air Force.
The U-2 was designed to provide all-weather surveillance capability at heights of up to 21,000m, beyond the reach of most fighters, missiles and radars.
Its unique glider-like characteristics also made it one of the most difficult aircraft in the air force’s fleet to fly, with little margin for error, especially during take-offs and landings.
The plane was flown by members of the Air Force’s 35th Squadron, or the “Black Cats,” between 1961 and 1974 at the height of the Cold War for reconnaissance of China’s atomic bomb program in a Taiwan-US project known as Project Razor.
The air force sent 30 pilots to the US for training, where six of them died. Only 17 of the remaining pilots survived the 220 reconnaissance missions Taiwan flew over China before the project was terminated in 1974 as the US pushed for improved relations with China.
Some of those survivors gathered recently to celebrate the launch of the book The Black Cat Squadron: Stories about Flying at 70,000 Feet, which details their experiences.
Author Shen Li-wen’s (沈麗文) father, Shen Tsung-li (沈宗李), was one of the pilots.
Reminiscing about his pilot days with his former colleagues, Shen Tsung-li recalled a near-death encounter with a MiG-21 fighter in the sky above eastern China.
“The alert sounded before I noticed an enemy fighter,” Shen said.
He then tilted the airplane 90 degrees and the warning shut off.
In a flash, he saw the MiG pilot.
“Since then, whenever I close my eyes, the face of the pilot emerges in my head,” Shen said.
Chang Li-yi (張立義), another former Black Cat, said he had to eject from his plane after being shot down 21,000m above the Earth.
“I immediately passed out. When I woke up, I was still in the air and dropping,” Chang said.
Chang’s U-2 was shot down by China on Jan. 10, 1965, and he became a prisoner of war. He was released in Nov. 10, 1982, and now lives in the US.
Another former pilot, Tsai Sheng-hsiung (蔡盛雄), said a reconnaissance pilot’s mission was unique, as the priority was always to return safely.
“Regular fighter pilots become heroes after shooting down enemies, even if they do not return, but for us, all the work is wasted if we do not return with the pictures,” Tsai said.
Tsai said the process of being chosen as a U-2 pilot was quite “extraordinary.”
“I was asked to report to the Air Force Command Headquarters. My superior officer gave me a note with an order to meet with US officials in a hotel room,” Tsai said. “They told me they had discovered some of my family members were communists.”
Tsai said he later realized that the Americans were testing his reaction toward emotional stress because only those with a calm demeanor would be chosen.
To survive during a flight up to 21,000m, Tsai said a U-2 pilot had to wear a customized anti-pressure suit, which he described as similar to an astronaut’s space suit.
“I lost six to eight pounds [2.2 to 3.6kg] every mission,” he said.
Additional reporting by CNA
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