Miracle at Cortez

Aug. 1, 1989

“Cortez, Colo., Aug. 4, 1959—An Air Force major escaped injury shortly before midnight when his weather reconnaissance jet flamed out and he was forced to make a crash landing here. The Air Force said the pilot, Maj. H. C. Hua, glided the Lockheed U-2 to the Cortez Airport… Major Hua was on a weather reconnaissance mission out of Laughlin AFB, Tex….”-News item

“Major Hsi-Chon Hua, Chinese Air Force, distinguished himself by extraordinary achievement participating in aerial flight on 3 August 1959, while serving as Aircraft Commander, 4080th Strategic Reconnaissance Wing, Light. “-Citation accompanying Distinguished Flying Cross

It was my seventh training flight in the new, super-secret U-2 reconnaissance aircraft, and it was a night mission. Months before, I had been selected by the Nationalist Chinese Air Force (NCAF) to go to the US for training in the exotic U-2. Everything about U-2 operations was clandestine, even the pilot selection process.

We NCAF U-2 trainees had been told only that top fighter pilots were being evaluated for a new mission and that selectees would have to pass rigorous physical and English-proficiency exams. That was about all. Not until we arrived at Laughlin AFB, Tex., in April 1959 did we find out what kind of aircraft we would fly.

Training was a challenge, even for someone like myself who had flown many F-86 sorties over the Taiwan Strait during the 1958 Quemoy crisis. The small U-2 cockpit was uncomfortable, the special pressure suit was cumbersome, and preflight oxygen-breathing was taxing.

My initial flight, and that of each pilot, was conducted over the wide-open spaces of southwest Texas. Subsequent flight courses would range across the US. With a pilot required constantly to identify current position, update the flight direction, and make corrections toward the next waypoint, the typical ten-hour flight was never boring.

For my seventh mission, I was to fly to Ogden, Utah, and back, using celestial navigation. The flight began around 8:30 p.m. on a hot August night. Flying weather was good, and everything was going reasonably well.

It was my first night flight in a foreign country. I recall that, with thousands of glittering stars crowding the clear dark sky, it was difficult to find the precise celestial body needed for a navigation fix. The heating wire inside the glass faceplate of the pressure suit obscured my vision, and the cockpit light was not bright enough to allow me easily to draw the most probable position line on my map.

“Altitude Above 450”

When at last I reached Ogden, I was happy and gratified that I had been able to reach the farthest route point without getting lost. I made a 300-degree left turn, heading toward Delta, Utah. Once over Delta, I called out my position report: “Altitude above 450.” Actually, I was flying above 70,000 feet, but the fictitious altitude was reported as a security precaution. That done, I concentrated once more on celestial navigation.

Suddenly, only a few minutes after I rounded Delta, the U-2’s engine flamed out and died. A quick glance at my clock showed it was 0528 Zulu, or 10:28 p.m. local time.

Things got bad very quickly. When the pressure suit started to inflate, I had to pull the helmet cable down hard to keep the rubber bladder inside from choking me. Then the autopilot went out. Soon, I learned firsthand just how great was the U-2’s lack of stability and control at high altitudes.

No try for an engine airstart could be attempted until the aircraft had descended below 35,000 feet. But the speed range between the stall buffet boundary and the Mach buffet boundary of the U-2 is less than twenty KIAS (knots indicated airspeed) at that altitude. I thus could not go into a rapid descent in order to ease the uncomfortable situation.

The only way that I could right the situation was to keep the aircraft gliding on course. Indeed, we had been told in ground school that many U-2s that had flamed out at high altitude had been successfully relighted at lower altitudes. I resolved not to panic.

The U-2 glided into the clouds below 40,000 feet. The air was bumpy. I struggled to keep the aircraft under control. Upon reaching 35,000 feet, I tried to relight the engine, but failed.

I thought that I must have followed an incorrect procedure, so I took the checklist out of my pocket, reviewed the airs tart procedure once more, and tried again. This attempt also failed.

I tried again, using the alternate airstart procedure. It also failed.

By this time, the altimeter indicated 17,000 feet. I was really in trouble. Lurking unseen in the clouds just below, I knew, were high peaks of the Rocky Mountains, some of which rose to altitudes of more than 13,000 feet.

A Desperate Mayday

What should I do? Bailout? Under normal circumstances, that would be the proper decision. But I was still in the clouds, and was unable to see what kind of terrain stretched below. My prospects for surviving a bailout over rough, remote mountain areas were low at best. I called out a desperate “Mayday!” to a nearby Air Force base but got no response.

God Almighty, I reckoned, would be the only one to save me now. So I prayed. I prayed aloud.

Suddenly, I was astonished at what I saw: lights on the ground at the eleven o’clock position. I had come out of the clouds to find that I was clipping along through a narrow valley, flying between tall mountains. Their sheer black walls rose and disappeared into the clouds above me. Even so, I felt a surge of relief. If there are ground lights, I calculated, there are probably people nearby, and that means that the terrain might be reasonably flat and I might be able to survive a forced landing.

I headed toward the lights. Gradually, I discerned alternating white and blue flashes, which I took to be a rotating beacon that normally identified an airfield. The altimeter showed the U -2 to be at about 7,000 feet. Bereft of information about the true elevation of the surrounding terrain, however, I had no way of knowing the actual altitude of the plane above ground. Under these circumstances, I had no alternative but to maintain an optimum glide speed and try to stay airborne until I reached the beacon.

As I drew nearer to the beacon, I saw that there were also some runway lights, meaning that I had stumbled on an airfield. How wonderful was that vision! I had enough altitude to glide across the runway and go into a 270-degree emergency-landing pattern.

On final approach, I put down the U-2’s landing gear and used the speed brake. The aircraft touched down fairly smoothly, but did not stay on the landing gear. The aircraft, with its belly scratching the pavement and its left wing tip striking the shoulder of the runway, went into a ground loop and came to rest in one piece.

Imagine Their Surprise

Quickly, I scrambled from the cockpit and made for the only lighted building around. Inside, I found the airport manager and a radio operator. It took me a little while to fully apprise them of the situation, using my Chinese-accented English. One can imagine their surprise at coming face to face with a Chinese pilot, wearing a pressure suit, having just flown in unannounced in the dead of night in an aircraft of the strangest appearance. They had never heard of a U-2. It would be nine months before the Soviet downing of Francis Gary Powers in Russian airspace was to make the name of the aircraft a household word.

As for me, I had never heard of Cortez, Colo. Not even the town, much less its airport, appeared on my map. The airport manager informed me that, due to the cost of supplying electricity, the local city council was debating whether to keep the tiny community’s airport lights on at night. What’s more, he told me, he and the radio operator had been preparing to close the office, douse the lights, and head home for the night.

That night, I was able to contact Laughlin AFB to report the accident. Next morning, the 4080th Strategic Reconnaissance Wing sent in a team, which dismantled the U-2 and loaded it in a C-124 transport. Inspection showed the problem had been caused by a broken fuel line, but the U-2 was otherwise inod shape. We all boarded the C-124 and flew back to Texas.

Months later, I was awarded a Distinguished Flying Cross by the US Air Force. The U-2—No. 56-6721—as modified and continued in active research and development use at Edwards AFB for many years.

Though this incident had a fortuitous ending, it was for me a solemn lesson about life. I do not believe that it was mere luck that brought me through the difficult moments. Think of the coincidences: The U-2 breaks out of the clouds in a valley, flying in the proper direction; within this valley lies the Cortez airfield, with no others around for 100 miles; the Cortez city council, against its better judgment, decides to leave the airfield lights on at night; and I had just the right altitude—no more, no less—required to land on such a short runway. For me, the conclusion to be drawn from all these “coincidences” is inescapable. My prayer was answered.

Hsichun M. Hua, now a lieutenant general in the Chinese Air Force, lives in Taiwan, the Republic of China. He has served in his nation’s air force for more than thirty years. He was prompted to send this account of his experience to AIR FORCE Magazine after seeing, in the February ’89 issue, a Bob Stevens” There I Was” cartoon depicting his narrow escape.