Taipei, Jan. 29 (CNA) On April 29, 1971, Republic of China Air Force pilot Sheng Chung-li, flying a U-2 surveillance airplane, had a near-death encounter with a MiG-21 jet fighter in the open sky above the eastern coast of China.
"The alert sounded before I noticed an enemy fighter following, " Johnny Shen recalled. He then tilted the airplane 90 degrees and the warning was released.
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 recalled Thursday at the release of the book "The Black Cat Squadron: Stories about Flying at 70,000 Feet" authored by his daughter Shen Li-wen.
Shen was one of 28 Black Cat pilots flying U.S.-made U-2s in the 1970s and 1980s. The reconnaissance squadron, formally known as the ROCAF 35th Squadron, was built in 1961 through Taiwan-U.S. military cooperation, with Washington offering aircraft and surveillance technical support and Taipei providing logistic support and pilots.
It operated during the Cold War, when Taiwan was on full alert against a sneak attack by China's People's Liberation Army.
Washington proposed the alliance to gain strategic intelligence on China after Beijing was found to be developing atomic bombs with the assistance of the Soviet Union.
The Black Cats were tasked to fly U-2s -- reputed to be the most difficult airplane in the world to steer -- to conduct reconnaissance operations in the sky 70,000 feet above the mainland.
Shen Li-wen, who spent more than eight years interviewing and chronicling stories of the surviving Black Cats living in Taiwan and the U.S., said the single-engine planes had very light frames with wingspans as wide as a basketball court that allowed them to glide at high altitudes.
But they were vulnerable to fuel leaks and could easily stall, Shen said at her book release.
As she did research for the project, she learned that U-2 pilots needed to have extraordinary physical strength and endurance to be able to carry out missions that lasted at least eight hours.
They also needed "ingrained good luck," she added.
From 1961 to 1974, a total of 28 Air Force pilots joined the Black Cat Squadron. Ten of them died during training or on missions and two others were captured alive after being shot down by missiles.
The two grounded pilots, Chang Li-yi and Yeh Chang-di, were not released to Hong Kong until 1982. Eight years later, they were permitted to return to Taiwan.
Chang was present at the book release at the Taipei International Book Exhibition 2010 Thursday, along with two other squadron members Chiu Sung-chou and Tsai Sheng-hsiung.
Shen Li-wen said that when those U-2 pilots are praised as "very great men, " most of them would shake their heads and say, "it's nothing. It was nothing but fun." But if you asked them if U-2s were "difficult to fly," they would all agree, she said.
Shen said she recorded their stories to clear up rumors surrounding the squadron and fill in a gaping hole in the country's military history.
(By Elizabeth Hsu)