Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Taiwan and the RF-101A Voodoo

After the conclusion of the Korean War, the Communist Chinese began construction of at least ten new airfields across the Taiwan Straits from the island of Formosa, or Taiwan, which since 1948 had been the refuge of Kuomintang or “Nationalist Chinese” forces after their expulsion from the mainland.  Having evacuated to Formosa, they remained as a government-in-exile as the Republic of China.  The late 1950s saw a continuing pattern of improvements to Red Chinese capabilities that could threaten Taiwan and its key strategic outposts on the islands of Quemoy, covering the approaches to the port city of Amoy, and Matsu, overlooking the port city of Fuzhou.  Also, a rail line had been built from the city of Yingtan to Amoy, along with a major POL (Petroleum, Oil, and Lubricants) facility of 1,500,000 gallons capacity located at about the halfway point.  The rail line, completed in early 1957, offered a vastly increased capability to sustain logistical support of an invasion of Nationalist-held territories.  Soon after the Quemoy crisis of 1958 came advanced Soviet-supplied weapons such as the MiG-19 and SA-2 “Guideline” surface-to-air missile.

With the need to monitor Red Chinese activity in the aftermath of the latest crisis over the Taiwan Strait, an agreement between the USAF and Republic of China Air Force (ROCAF) was signed in November 1959 to provide reconnaissance aircraft.  By this point, the ROCAF had already received several now-obsolescent RF-86F aircraft, and operated about 20 Republic RF-84F Thunderstreaks, four North American RF-100A “Slick Chicks”, and a single Martin RB-57D for high-altitude reconnaissance.  The ROCAF was dissatisfied with the RF-100A as it entered service in 1959 and by the time it was retired at the beginning of 1961, it never flew an operational mission.  To augment high-speed, low-altitude reconnaissance assets and replace the RF-100As, four RF-101A Voodoos would be supplied to Taiwan under Project Boom Town.

ROCAF RF-101As at Taoyuan AB, Taiwan.  From front to rear: “5652” (ex-54-1503), “5656” (ex-54-1519), “5650” (ex-54-1500), and “5654” (ex-54-1499).  “5656” would be shot down over the Taiwan Straits by a MiG-19 on 18 March 1965, while “5650” would become the last operational RF-101A, serving with the ROCAF until August 1973. Jim Sullivan Collection.
The four RF-101As transferred were 54-1500 as “650”, 54-1503 as “652”, 54-1499 as “654”, and 54-1519 as “656”.  USAF records show two aircraft delivered to the ROCAF on 28 October 1959 under provisions of the Military Assistance Program (MAP).  These aircraft were assigned to the 4th Tactical Reconnaissance Squadron at Taoyuan AB, west of the capital city of Taipei.  At least in December 1959, these aircraft appear to have been on PACAF’s books as it had a total of 40 RF-101A/C aircraft assigned, four more than authorized, based at Kadena AB, Okinawa with the 15th TRS and the 45th TRS at Misawa AB, Japan.  Conversion training for the ROCAF pilots took place at Kadena AB.  Once the ROCAF pilots of the 4th TRS completed their training on the Voodoo, missions over the coastal areas of the Chinese mainland began on 8 December 1960 under Project Sentry Dog, covering all of the Communist air bases opposite of Quemoy.  The ROCAF was very pleased with the low-level reconnaissance ability of the RF-101A, despite the fact that their aircraft used standard A-9B film magazines without image motion control, which limited their minimum mission altitude.  Ingress routes to the objective were flown at literally rooftop level, avoiding trees and power lines along the way, followed by a “pop-up” to a suitable altitude over the objective to ensure good image quality and then maximum power egress back toward the Taiwan Strait at supersonic speed.  In addition to Red Chinese airfields, the Voodoos also soon collected detailed photographs of radar sites and Communist monitoring stations and signals intelligence (SIGINT) facilities directed toward the heavily-populated northern half of Taiwan.  A mission by Major Yeh Chang-ti in June 1961 brought back photos of five new MiG airfields along the coast, for which both Major Yeh and the 4th TRS were personally recognized by Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek.  Major Yeh soon went on to become one of the first ROCAF pilots assigned to fly the U-2 as one of the famed “Black Cats.”

Photographed prior to its transfer to the ROCAF in mid-1961, RF-101A 54-1498, as “5649,” became the first Voodoo lost to hostile fire when Maj. Wu Pao-tze was hit by AAA and captured near Fuzhou, Red China on 2 August 1961. Mark Nankivil Collection.

Attrition losses soon began to take their toll on the small Nationalist RF-101A fleet.  On 23 July 1961, an RF-101A, 54-1503 as “5652”, was badly damaged in an accident and unavailable until the end of 1961.  An attrition replacement was soon provided, 54-1498 as “5649”.  This aircraft became the first-ever combat loss of an RF-101 on 2 August 1961, when “5649” was shot down by anti-aircraft fire over the port of Fuzhou in mainland China.  The pilot, Major Wu Pao-tze, was captured and became a POW.   Subjected to brainwashing by his captors, Wu later collaborated by a broadcast calling upon ROCAF Voodoo pilots by name to defect to the mainland with their aircraft.  The damaged aircraft, “5652”, was repaired during the fall of 1961 and returned to service, bringing the total strength back to four aircraft.  As Chiang Kai-shek continued his plans to overthrow the Communist government on the mainland and the Red Chinese continued work toward building an atomic bomb, ROCAF reconnaissance aircraft continued to remain quite busy conducting missions over the coastal areas of the mainland.

Nationalist Chinese operations with the RF-101A continued after the conclusion of the 1962 Taiwan Strait crisis in August of that year.  In early 1963, the first of three new RF-101As were transferred to Taiwan under MAP to take the place of three of the original aircraft that were scheduled for depot-level maintenance at Hill AFB.  These aircraft, “5650” (54-1500), “5652” (54-1503) and “5654” (54-1499) departed for the United States via Kadena AB.  The replacement aircraft appear to have been 54-1501 (as “5651”), 54-1505 (as “5660”) and 54-1506 (as “5658”).  At least the last two aircraft had been modified with the small afterburner cooling inlet on the leading edge of the vertical fin, as present on the RF-101C.   This appears to have been a one-off modification to allow the ROCAF RF-101A aircraft extended time in afterburner.

RF-101A-25-MC 54-1505 shortly after recovering at Ontario Airport, CA during Desert Strike in May 1964.  Soon afterward, this aircraft would be transferred to Taiwan as an attrition replacement for the ROCAF  as “5660.” NARA via Mark Nankivil.

Tensions across the Taiwan Strait increased sharply with the detonation of an atomic bomb by the Communist Chinese on 16 October 1964.   Reconnaissance sorties by ROCAF RF-101A aircraft had begun to increase during the summer of 1964.  Meanwhile, Taiwan was in the midst of transitioning from the RF-84F to the new RF-104G, which would become operational with the 12th TRS in November 1964.  The ROCAF suffered its second combat loss of an RF-101A when “5651” (54-1501) was severely damaged by a J-6 (MiG-19) “Farmer” interceptor over Wenzhou, Zhejiang Province in late December 1964.  Major Hsieh Hsiang-ho was captured by local fishermen after bailing out of his stricken Voodoo just offshore and became a POW.  Up to that point, ROCAF RF-101As had completed 139 successful reconnaissance missions over the Chinese mainland without being intercepted by Communist MiGs.  A second loss to the speedy and powerful J-6 occurred on 18 March 1965 with the loss of “5656” (54-1519) and the pilot, Lt. Col. Chang Yu-pao, who was killed in action.  His aircraft was shot down over the Taiwan Strait just offshore of Guangdong, near Shantou.  This would be the last operational loss of a Nationalist RF-101A.  Left with two operational RF-101A Voodoos that suddenly appeared vulnerable to the MiG-19, on 22 April 1965 the Air Staff at Headquarters USAF reportedly ordered that they be replaced in their role by RF-104G aircraft with the speed and acceleration to evade the newer interceptors.  However, this account is disputed by Taiwanese sources.  Analysis of MAP records shows a sharp reduction in flying hours per aircraft for the RF-101A after the losses, but by the late summer of 1965 this decision had either been rescinded or ignored by the ROCAF as RF-101A utilization returned to early 1965 levels.  Both the RF-101A and RF-104G maintained a similar number flying hours per aircraft through mid 1970, averaging roughly 60 hours per quarter, strongly implying that the RF-101A was not superseded but rather complemented by the RF-104G.

Shenyang J-6 Farmer of the PLAAF, an unlicensed copy of the Soviet MiG-19.  The agility, rate of climb, lethal 30-millimeter cannon armament, and excellent low-level speed of the Farmer made it a formidable defensive weapon against even the speedy Voodoo.  Wikipedia.

Although faster, the RF-104G carried only three 70-millimeter format KS-67A cameras in a trimetrogon configuration in the forward fuselage in front of the engine.  The negatives were much smaller than the 9-inch by 9-inch negatives of the KA-2 cameras carried by the RF-101A in the same arrangement.  The RF-104G did not have any provision for a forward oblique camera and could not conduct “dicing” missions as the RF-101A could.  The newer aircraft also had nothing even approaching the capabilities of the split vertical KA-1 arrangement of the RF-101A.  While the 70-millimeter cameras did offer good resolution given their size, the area covered by the trimetrogon fan was also deemed insufficient.  However, the retention of the KA-2 cameras in the ROCAF Voodoos restricted their minimum mission altitude as had been the case for USAF aircraft during the Cuban Missile Crisis.  Using the A-9B film magazines with no IMC capability, the RF-101A would have had a V/H ratio of about 0.26, limiting their aircraft to a minimum altitude of about 1,700 feet at 400 knots and 2,600 feet at its maximum speed of 637 knots.  Overall, although the low-altitude performance of the RF-104G was impressive, the opinion within the ROCAF was that it was hampered by its camera system and seldom produced quality results.  The ROCAF RF-101A contingent was brought back up to four aircraft by the end of 1965 with the return from Hill AFB of two of the aircraft sent to the United States for maintenance.  The third aircraft, 54-1503, was apparently too far gone for economical repair and was not returned.  This left the surviving ROCAF force as consisting of 54-1499 (“5654”), 54-1500 (“5650”), 54-1505 (“5660”) and 54-1506 (“5658”), still serving with the 4th Tactical Reconnaissance Squadron.

Chiang Kai-shek’s continued obsession with “liberating” mainland China against clearly insurmountable Communist forces had long ago become a source of friction with the United States, which had committed to defend Taiwan against attack but would never approve of overt military action to overthrow the regime of Mao Tse-tung.  From an aerial reconnaissance standpoint, the issue came to a head over the course of 1967.  On 13 January 1967, an RF-104G mission over the mainland led to an air battle over the Taiwan Strait in which a pair of Red Chinese MiG-19s were downed by F-104Gs covering the escape of the ROCAF reconnaissance aircraft.  The day previously, another RF-104G conducting a high-altitude mission over a coastal objective was pursued over the Taiwan Strait for the first time by a pair of  MiG-21 interceptors.  This was followed in the late summer of 1967 by the downing of a ROCAF U-2 over Quzhou in Jiaxing Province.  These events soon led to the termination of all CIA and US military-sponsored overflights of mainland China by ROCAF reconnaissance aircraft.  From this point on, only peripheral missions using oblique photography would be approved.  The last overflight of mainland China by a ROCAF U-2 occurred on 16 March 1968.

Coincident with the planned retirement of the RF-101 from the regular USAF, the Nationalist Chinese RF-101A force was reduced in the fall of 1970 from four aircraft to one operational aircraft.  It would appear that the three retired ROCAF aircraft were retired to provide equipment spares for the last remaining aircraft, 54-1500 (“5650”).  Despite its age, the last remaining RF-101A offered unique imaging capabilities that could not be equaled by the RF-104G.  This last aircraft remained operational with the 4th TRS until the unit was deactivated in February 1973, when it was transferred to the 12th TRS for its last six months of active service into the summer of 1973, when it was retired from service on 1 August and later returned to the United States.  RF-101A 54-1500 does not show up in AMARC records and was apparently scrapped at Hill AFB.  The other three aircraft remained in Taiwan to become display aircraft, where they remain at this writing.


  1. RoCAF also used at least 4 or 6 RF-101C which from USAF 15th TRS/18th TFW. http://gkjlai.pixnet.net/blog/post/232067327-%E9%97%9C%E6%96%BC%E5%9C%8B%E8%BB%8D%E7%9A%84rf-101c%E7%A0%94%E7%A9%B6

    1. Hi Gary,

      My apologies for this very late response as I had not received notification of your reply. Thank you for the link to this interesting blog post. Much of my information came via Dr. Chang Wei-bin, owner of the Taiwan Air Power blog, as well as a couple of English language memoirs by former ROCAF pilots that I have run across. As iresearched and wrote these sections, I knew that I was doing little more than scratching the surface of the stories of service in Taiwan, but you have to start somewhere. I am sure that many of these stories have been told and much has been published that has not become available in an English format. I would deeply welcome the opportunity to learn more of these stories, and relate these stories of courage and dedication on the part of Nationslist Chinese pilots to Western audiences. These stories represent extremely important history that is too easily overlooked in many quarters. Thank you very much for your interest in my writings, and hope to hear from you again in the future.