Republic of China Air Force’s clandestine overflights over the Chinese mainland in the 1950s
The Republic of China had, since its inception on the islands of Taiwan, been actively supported by the United States, for no other reason than that it was opposed to the communist People’s Republic of China (PRC). This support was very evident in the active cooperation between the air forces of both nations; the USA supplied the aircraft and the USAF provided the training. In 1956 the two nations reached an agreement concerning overflights of the Chinese mainland. The Republic Of China Air Force (ROCAF) had a clear interest in conducting overflights of the Chinese mainland. Its security depended on knowing its belligerent neighbour’s disposition and strength. Only with such knowledge could it adequately defend itself. The US Government also had a vested interest in encouraging and supporting such overflights.
Low Level Reconnaissance
Reconnaissance flights were the responsibility of the 4th Photo Reconnaissance Air Group based at Tao Yuan Air Base. The flying squadrons assigned to the Group in 1956 were the 4th Composite Squadron, which operated North American RF-86F Sabres and the 12th Tactical Reconnaissance Squadron, which operated Republic RF-84F Thunderflashes.
The RF-86F Sabre and the RF-84F Thunderflash were used on overflights of the Chinese mainland. Altogether 25 RF-84s and 7 RF-86s were supplied: the RF-84Fs in 1955 and the RF-86Fs in 1956. The targets for the reconnaissance aircraft were primarily coastal and maritime installations, with new airfields being constructed for jet fighters and bombers and Chinese naval bases and activities. All imagery was shared with the USAF and the CIA. The USAF’s 67th and 497th Reconnaissance Technical Squadrons (RTS) provided the photo processing and interpretation expertise.
The missions flown by the photo jet pilots of the ROCAF were low level and fast; what had become known in World War Two as `dicing missions’. In his book Asia from Above Colonel Roy Stanley (USAF Retd) says of these missions:
“RF-84s or RF-86s, and, later RF-101s would scream across the Taiwan Straits below radar cover as fast as they could peddle, circle inland at tree-top altitude, turn on their cameras and pop up between 1,000 to 1,500 feet to cover some airfield or other high threat target. The targets for these missions were usually Air Order of Battle, radars, artillery positions, concentrations of landing craft or troops and unusual activity. Photo objectives were usually covered on a heading for home to minimise the need for manoeuvre getting to safety in case they took fire over the target. They were wonderful to PI (Photo Interpret) because the objects photographed were quite large. You could see individual people. There was hardly ever any doubt what sort of MiG you were looking at; and the radars and guns were easily seen and identified.” The high speed flight over the water was later discouraged for the Voodoos.
At the time of the Quemoy Straits crisis in 1958 the RF-84Fs of the ROCAF were kept busy photographing the Communist build up on the mainland. The Thunderflashes, escorted by F-86F Sabres, undertook daily low level photo missions along the mainland coast. On the morning of September 24, 1958, the 12th Tactical Reconnaissance Squadron put its entire complement of 18 RF-84s into the air in six groups of three. Spreading out over the Straits of Taiwan, the Sabres of the 5th Fighter Group escorted the photo recce jets to targets from Wenzhou in the east to Shantou in the west; a distance of 500 miles. Opposition was erratic except over the naval base of Shantou, where the RF-84s and Sabres came under fire from anti-aircraft batteries and a group of Mikoyan Gurevich MiG-17s. One MiG was claimed shot down by an F-86. The ROCAF admitted no casualties.
The RF-86 began to be phased out of the ROCAF inventory in 1957, the last examples leaving in 1959. All seven of the recce Sabres were passed on to the Republic of Korea Air Force. The RF-84F remained with the ROCAF until 1965, when all surviving aircraft were returned to the United States. The ROCAF received some North American RF-100As in 1959. These were F-100A Super Sabres specially modified for reconnaissance, six of which were used by the USAF in Europe and Asia under Project Slick Chick. The RF-100As were modified to carry five cameras: three K-17s were placed in a trimetrogen arrangement and two K-38s with 36in cones in the split vertical. The K-38s were the main intelligence gathering cameras and it was intended to use the RF-100 for high altitude photo reconnaissance. The K-38s were ideally suited to this purpose as in the split vertical configuration they provided photos of a sufficiently large scale to provide acceptable intelligence information. Of the original six Slick Chick RF-100s, only four were delivered to the ROCAF, two having crashed while in USAF service. Information regarding the operations of the RF-100s in service with the ROCAF is sketchy. However, it has been suggested that they, in fact, were never used for reconnaissance over the People’s Republic. The camera system was very temperamental, had a high failure rate and sourcing spares for the aircraft’s systems proved difficult. The fate of the RF-100s is unknown but it is thought they were decommissioned in early 1960 and possibly scrapped.
Meanwhile, in 1959 the ROCAF’s tactical reconnaissance capabilities were enhanced by the arrival in Taiwan of McDonnell RF-101 Voodoos under an operation codenamed Boom-Town. The Voodoos were faster and had a greater fuel capacity than the RF-84s and could subsequently reach further into Communist China. Eventually, the air force acquired eight of these aircraft, which were used to conduct shallow penetration flights over the Chinese mainland between 1959 and 1970. The official mission of the Voodoos was to fly surveillance missions over coastal waters, a piece of misinformation which lost its credibility when the first of the RF-101As was shot down over mainland near Fukien in August 1962.
An experienced Voodoo pilot, Jerry Miller was an `advisor’ with the ROCAF at this time: “The US pilots were actually `intel’ guys,” he says. “Briefed and given `special’ top secret clearances, we were not to reveal our involvement with the ROCAF, but within two months, the Chicoms had me identified. I was known by the Chinese name of `horse’.
“I talked to the CAF commanders about using some of the tactics we adopted in Vietnam, such as low-level pop-up, etc. Boy, was I given an education. They had used low level – hi speed several years earlier but encountered so much sea spray from the rough waters of the `straights’, that by the time they reached the mainland the windscreen was nearly opaque. Also, the sea salt damage was so severe that in the mid-60s the birds were sent to the depot (Hill AFB) to be re-skinned. Low level was definitely OUT!
“I then demonstrated a tactic that involved flying parallel to the coast at high altitude and then turning abruptly towards the mainland while descending rapidly to around 10,000ft, then turning back parallel to the coastline and while in a bank, use the split vertical cameras to obtain oblique photos of coastline installations. (A porpoising motion, or relaxing the turn, may be needed during the camera cycling to avoid image motion problems.) Then you would continue turning away from the mainland and descending to a height above the sea spray, 2-3,000ft. They liked it!”
The Voodoo remained in the ROCAF inventory until 1970 when operational attrition ended their careers. Most were returned to the US, one being retained by Taiwan for static display.
Mixing with MiGs
Because of the intensity of the Republic of China Air Force incursions into the People’s Republic of China air space, it was inevitable that there would be casualties. Many aircraft were lost over the mainland, including, of course, reconnaissance aircraft. On June 17, 1958 a pair of RF-84Fs were approaching Shanghai when they were intercepted by several MiG-17s of the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF). The lead RF-84 was piloted by Colonel Chen. One of the MiG-17s got on his tail and Chen took an evasive manoeuvre which involved dropping his flaps and slowing down sufficiently to allow the fighter to overtake him. With his nose oblique camera, he took a photo of the MiG.
Unfortunately, Chen’s wingman 1st Lieutenant Chao Shin, was shot down as the pair made a dash back to Taiwan.
There were no recorded losses of the RF-86; but in January 1956, one aircraft was chased by MiG fighters whilst conducting a recce mission over the mainland. The pilot, Major Lee, made it to Hong Kong. He was held there in detention for 42 days, after which his RF-86 and he were sent back to Taiwan.