When 'Dragon Lady' dropped into Cortez

Tuesday, July 30, 2013 2:35 AM
GERALD VINCENT discusses the 'Black Cat' display at the Cortez Airport.
Officials look over the U-2 that landed unexpectedly in Cortez on Aug. 3, 1959.
TAIWANESE PILOT Hsichan "Mike" Hua piloted the U-2 to a safe landing at the Cortez Airport in 1959.
Maj. Hua in his flight suit in 1959.

When it comes to the history of the Cold War, most people know that the Cuban Missile Crisis and the Berlin Wall were landmark events. But a lesser known drama in the decades-long tensions between the U.S. and its communist foes played out in Cortez, and Saturday marks the anniversary.

The drama focused on the U-2, a high-altitude surveillance plane best known for a May 1960 incident involving Francis Gary Powers, who was shot down over the Soviet Union. The CIA's cover story, that the plane was used for weather observation, was blown.

But months before that, a pilot from the Taiwanese Air Force named Maj. Hsichan "Mike" Hua made an emergency landing in Cortez that is still the stuff of legend among U-2 pilots.

The U.S. had invited the pilots to train to fly the plane, nicknamed the "Dragon Lady" and the "Black Cat," for surveillance over mainland China, because U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower didn't want to put American pilots in the air above the Communist country.

Still a gripping story

"I was one of six pilots in Taiwan to come to the U.S. to learn to fly a secret aircraft, so secret no one in the Chinese Air Force had any idea about what the airplane was," Hua said in a video reminiscing about the experience. "When we finally saw the glider-like aircraft with its bicycle landing gear, we were not very much impressed at first glance - until we saw it taking off on a 75-degree climb angle just after leaving the ground."

The pilots were training at Laughlin Air Force Base in Del Rio, Texas. Hua took off at about 8:30 p.m. Aug. 3, 1959, on a training flight to practice navigating by the stars. His flight plan was to Ogden, Utah, and back. The U-2 was a dangerous plane to fly, he said in the video; already, in its first three years of production, there had been 17 crashes had 11 pilots killed.

"Every flight, even training flights, were solo flights," Gerald Vincent, president of the Cortez Aviation Heritage Society, said in a recent interview, "and Hua was only on his seventh flight when this happened."

At about 10:28 p.m., shortly after reaching Ogden and turning back, the single engine on Hua's airplane flamed out and the generator quit. With the loss of power at 70,000 feet, he also lost the autopilot, and his special flight suit immediately pressurized, making it more difficult for him to work the controls.

"I had to be below 35,000 feet to try an air start," Hua said. "I hit some clouds at 40,000 feet, and when I hit 35,000 feet, I was still in the clouds."

He tried to restart three times in the turbulent clouds and failed. Still in the clouds, Hua didn't want to eject, because he was uncertain about the terrain below. And another concern was becoming pressing.

"I knew many peaks of the Rocky Mountains rose above 14,000 feet. I was really in trouble," Hua said. "I tried calling a nearby Air Force base and got no answer. Then I came out of the clouds. Suddenly, I saw lights on the ground."

U-2 never easy to land

There had been a lot of discussion on the Cortez City Council about turning off the runway lights at night to save money. But they were still lit at 11:30 p.m. on that August night.

Although he now had a runway, Hua was still not home free.

"The U-2 was hard to land on a good day," said Vincent, a former pilot. "They had so much lift, they would have another pilot in a fast car on the ground along the runway, calling out the approach."

Hua was doing it alone, at night and at an airport that wasn't even on his map. And with no landing gear - that, too, was frozen when the engine flamed out.

He made the belly landing, and although the plane went off the runway, it still landed upright. The damage was minor.

Frontier Airlines station manager Ray Johnston was still at the airport because of a late arriving flight. He gave Hua a pair of mechanic's dungarees to wear and called Laughlin Air Force Base, which directed him to call the National Guard to protect the top-secret plane.

"It wasn't that secret," said Tom Johnson, who was the captain of the local National Guard unit. "The news was up to Main Street by morning, and a photo of the plane ran on the front page of the [Montezuma Valley] Journal."

The Journal reported that the plane was on a "weather reconnaissance mission."

Capt. Johnson first came by himself to see what had happened when he got the call.

"That Maj. Hua didn't want to have anything to do with me when I was in my civvies," he said. "But then I went home and changed into my uniform, and it was all OK. Ray (Johnston) took him home, gave him a bed and fed him."

Johnson and three of his sergeants stood guard until the Air Force arrived late the next morning, and Montezuma County Sheriff's Deputy Bill Rutledge took over the security. Hua said investigators discovered a leaking fuel line had caused the flameout.

"I didn't stick around once the Air Force got there," Johnson said. "I owned the Dolores Star, and I had a newspaper to put out. But the City Council decided that money was well spent on the lights."

The rest of the story

After receiving a Distinguished Flying Cross from the U.S. Air Force for his feat, Hua went on to become a four-star general in the Republic of China Air Force. He earned a master's degree and doctorate in aeronautical engineering at Purdue University and was in charge of Taiwan's aerospace program. Now living in Maryland, he has written or been a source for several articles about the landing. Hua also wrote a book, "Lost Black Cats: The Story of Two Captured U-2 Pilots," about two of his comrades who were captured in mainland China after their spy planes went down.

Tom Johnson spent 28 years in active and reserve service and most of his adult life as a newspaperman. He turned 91 on Friday.

The runway lights at the Cortez Municipal Airport no longer provide a beacon in the darkness.

"I don't know how long they've been turned off at night, but it's before my time," airport manager Russ Machen said. "They went to a new economical airport lighting system in 1990, so it's probably been at least since then."

The U-2 was repaired and delivered to Special Projects, also known as the Skunkworks, at Edwards Air Force Base in Nevada. It was flying again by December 1959, reconfigured to hold an observer and infrared search equipment for missile research.

The U-2 that miraculously survived so many obstacles to make an emergency landing in Cortez is currently resting on its laurels on exhibit at the Blackbird Airpark at Edwards AFB.

The U-2 at a glance

The Cold War was escalating when the U-2 was developed.

'In the middle '50s, the United States, an open society, was faced by a closed communist empire, which had lost none of its ambitions for world conquest, but which now possessed, in airplanes and guided missiles armed with nuclear weapons, an ever-growing capacity for launching a surprise attack against the United States,' President Dwight D. Eisenhower wrote in his autobiography about the decision to build the U-2.

The U.S. needed a way to find out what was happening, and they needed it quickly. After requests for proposals, they commissioned the U-2 from Lockheed, and it went from drawing board to runway in just eight months. According to Lt. Col. Charles Wilson, who has written about what it's like to fly a U-2, it is still considered the most difficult plane to land because 'it wants to keep flying, even at a stall.'

The U-2 has been upgraded and modified several times since it first flew in 1955. Since 1994, $1.7 billion has been spent to modernize the airframe, sensors and engine. Its current designation is U-2S.

The U-2 has a wingspan of 105 feet and is 63 feet long, according to the Air Force's fact sheet on the aircraft. It typically flies at about 70,000 feet (more than 13 miles above the earth), but crews have gone as high as 87,000 feet. It cannot go into space because the engines require oxygen to burn fuel. The recommended top speed is Mach 3.2 - about 2,435 mph.

The Air Force currently has 33 U-2s in its inventory, including five two-seat trainers and two operated by NASA.

The plane has been a valuable asset in Korea, the Balkans, Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as providing peacetime reconnaissance during natural disasters, including Hurricane Katrina.

In 2011, The New York Times reported the U-2 would be phased out by 2015. But budget cuts and military realities have changed those plans.

'It's still flying and still useful to the Air Force,' said Kelly Sanders, Air Combat Command spokesperson. 'The odds are, it will still be flying in the 2030s and 2040s.'

To learn more, visit the U-2 Dragon Lady Association at or, including 'Flying the U-2.'