How Taiwanese Veteran Pilots Defected to China With Their American Jets

Taiwan, officially the Republic of China, has been technically at war with the Chinese mainland for over 70 years with both parties claiming to be the sole legitimate government of the Chinese nation and in the past clashing militarily over the Taiwan Strait. The government in Taipei initially benefited from enormous wealth, with national treasures of China including its entire gold reserves concentrated on the sparsely populated island territory after these assets were moved to Taiwan during the Chinese Civil War. This and subsequent access to Western and Japanese markets for its industrial goods allowed it to purchase very high end armaments from the United States, including U-2 surveillance planes for which it was the only foreign operator, which placed it militarily on par with the mainland both in the air and at sea for several decades despite its much smaller population. Despite high tensions, many aircraft pilots in Taiwan have defected to the Chinese mainland taking their combat jets with them, with defections taking place for a range of reasons usually related to disillusionment with the Taipei government.

Taiwanese F-5E Lightweight Fighter

The F-5E Tiger II third generation fighter was produced in Taiwan under licence in the 1970s, with over 300 manufactured. Taiwanese pilots flew F-5s in multiple combat operations against the communist government of South Yemen as part of a military intervention in the Middle East in the 1980s. These served as Taiwan’s prime fighter aircraft until they were surpassed by the indigenous Ching Kuo fighter in 1990s, which was considered its most capable combat jet for many years until the delivery of the first F-16V unit in early 2021. The first defection using an F-5 fighter occurred on August 8th, 1981, using the twin seat F-5F variant of the jet. The pilot, Republic of China Air Force Major Huang Zhicheng, was assigned to conduct an instrument flying check on his student Lieutenant Hsu Chiu-Ling. Hsu used cockpit blinds to prevent him from cheating by looking at the outside world and instead rely solely on his instruments to see his location. Once these blinds were put in place in the air, Zhicheng dropped to a 400ft altitude and crossed the Taiwan Strait to the mainland. Hsu identified their location using his instruments, and notably protested to his instructor that he didn’t want to land in the mainland. Major Huang thus returned to fly over Taiwan and allowed his student to parachute down, before flying back to the mainland and landing at Fuzhou. Chinese authorities subsequently granted the defector a position as deputy commandant of China’s Aviation Academy, and provided a substantial financial reward. 

China Airlines Boeing 747-200F – Used to Defect By Wang Xijue

The F-5E was notably acquired by the Soviet Union for study after several jets were capture by the Viet Minh from South Vietnam in 1975, although poor Chinese relations with both Vietnam and the USSR meant it likely did not have access to the design for study. Nevertheless, with the U.S. building F-5E jets almost exclusively for export and not fielding the aircraft itself, the benefits of access to the low end design were likely limited. A second known case of an F-5E defection occurred on February 11, 1989, when Lieutenant Colonel Lin Xianshun landed near Fengshun in Guangdong Province. While Lin’s case was the second confirmed Taiwanese defection of the decade using an F-5, a prior defection in 1986 had seen pilot Wang Xijue defect in a much larger aircraft. Wang used a Boeing 747-200F from China Airlines, the official name of the Taiwanese government airline, to break a record for the largest aircraft ever used for a defection.

F-35 and F-16 Fighters

On May 3rd 1986, when stopping over in Hong Kong on a return trump from Bangkok to Taiwan from Bangkok, the veteran pilot handcuffed his Co-Pilot Tung Kung-shin after a short struggle. His flight engineer Chiu Ming-chih, who was in the bathroom at the time, was subsequently forced to comply with Wang. The pilot then diverted the aircraft to the Guangzhou Bay International Airport on the mainland, and received flight assistance through official Chinese civil aviation. Wang’s defection notably forced Taipei to reverse its pledge to never contact the Beijing government, and is credited with sparking the beginning of a renewal of cross-straits relations between the two rival Chinese governments. With tensions in the Taiwan Strait escalating sharply since the coming to power fo the Tsai Ing Wen administration in Taipei, and Taiwan showing growing hostility to the mainland and closer alignment with the Western powers, the potential for future defection incidents from Taiwan to the mainland remains significant. Widespread pro-mainland sympathies on Taiwan have repeatedly been cited as a reason for the United States to deny the Republic of China Air Force the ability to purchase advanced fighter aircraft, with Taiwanese requests to acquire the F-35 stealth fighter notably denied which forced it to acquire ageing F-16s – a design which will have already been flying for 50 years when delivered.

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