The Black Cats flew the deadliest missions in the U-2’s 55-year history

Tuesday, April 2nd, 2024

Area 51 by Annie JacobsenPreparing for “Oxcart” missions — that is, preparing to fly the CIA’s A-12, precursor to the Air Force’s SR-71, over enemy territory — involved punishing survival-training operations, Annie Jacobsen explains, in her book about Area 51:

“I crawled slowly through the brambles, bugs, and mud for about thirty minutes when, suddenly, I hit a trip wire and alarms went off. A glaring spotlight came on and ten Chinese men in uniform grabbed me and dragged me to one of their jeeps.” Collins was handcuffed, driven for a while, put into a second vehicle, and taken to so-called Chinese interrogation headquarters. There, he was stripped naked and searched. “A doctor proceeded to examine every orifice the human body has, from top to bottom—literally,” which, Collins believes, “was more to humiliate and break down my moral defenses than anything else.” Naked, he was led down a dimly lit hallway and pushed into a concrete cell furnished with a short, thin bed made of wood planks. “I had no blanket, I was naked, and it was very cold. They gave me a bucket to be used only when I was told.”

For days, Collins went through simulated torture that included sleep deprivation, humiliation, extreme temperature fluctuation, and hunger, all the while naked, cold, and under surveillance by his captors. “The cell had one thick wooded door with a hole for viewing. This opening had a metal window that would clank open and shut. A single bright light was on and when I was about to doze off, the light would flash off, which would immediately snap me out of sleep.” For food, he was given watery soup, two thin pepper pods, and two bits of mysterious meat. “I had no water to drink and I was always watched. I didn’t know day from night so there was no sense of time. The temperature varied from hot to very cold. The voice through the viewing window shouted demands.”

Soon Collins began to hallucinate. Now it was interrogation time. Naked, he was led to a small room by two armed guards. He stood in front of his Chinese interrogators, who sat behind a small desk. They grilled him about his name, rank, and why he was spying on China. The torturous routine continued for what Collins guessed was several more days. Then one day, instead of being taken to his interrogators, he was told that he was free to go.

Halfway across the world, the Chinese interrogators were real:

A CIA pilot named Yeh Changti had been flying a U-2 spy mission over a nuclear facility in China when he was shot down, captured by the Chinese Communist government, and tortured. Yeh Changti was a member of the Thirty-Fifth Black Cat U-2 Squadron, a group of Taiwanese Chinese Nationalist pilots (as opposed to the Communist Chinese, who inhabited the mainland) who worked covert espionage missions for the CIA. In the 1960s, the Black Cats flew what would prove to be the deadliest missions in the U-2’s fifty-five-year history, all of which were flown out of a secret base called Taoyuan on the island of Taiwan. When the CIA declassified most of the U-2 program, in 1998, “no information was released about Yeh Changti or the Black Cats,” says former Black Cat pilot Hsichun Hua. The program, in entirety, remains classified as of 2011.

Colonel Hugh “Slip” Slater, the man who would later become the commander of Area 51, remembers Yeh Changti before he got shot down. “His code name was Terry Lee and he and I played tennis on the base at Taoyuan all the time. He was a great guy and an amazing acrobat, which helped him on the court. Sometimes we drank scotch while we played. Both the sport and the scotch helped morale.” Slater says that the reason morale was low was that “the U-2 had become so vulnerable to the SA-2 missiles that nobody wanted to fly.” One Black Cat pilot had already been shot down. But that didn’t stop the dangerous missions from going forward for the CIA.

Unlike what had happened with the Gary Powers shoot-down, the American press remained in the dark about these missions. For the CIA, getting hard intelligence on China’s nuclear facilities was a top national security priority. On the day Yeh Changti was shot down, he was returning home from a nine-hour mission over the mainland when a surface-to-air missile guidance system locked on to his U-2. Colonel Slater was on the radio with Yeh Changti when it happened. “I was talking to him when I heard him say, ‘System 12 on!’ We never heard another word.” The missile hit Yeh Changti’s aircraft and tore off the right wing. Yeh Changti ejected from the airplane, his body riddled in fifty-nine places with missile fragments. He landed safely with his parachute and passed out. When he woke up, he was in a military facility run by Mao Tse-tung.

This was no training exercise. Yeh Changti was tortured and held prisoner for nineteen years until he was quietly released by his captors, in 1982. He has been living outside Houston, Texas, ever since. The CIA did not know that Yeh Changti had survived his bailout and apparently did not make any kind of effort to locate him. A second Black Cat pilot named Major Jack Chang would also get shot down in a U-2, in 1965, and was imprisoned alongside Yeh Changti. After their release, the two pilots shared their arduous stories with fellow Black Cat pilot, Hsichun Hua, who had become a general in the Taiwanese air force while the men were in captivity. Neither Yeh Changti nor Major Jack Chang was ever given a medal by the CIA. The shoot-down of the Black Cat U-2 pilots, however, had a major impact on what the CIA and the Air Force would do next at Area 51. Suddenly, the development of drones had become a national security priority, drones being pilotless aircraft that could be flown by remote control.


  1. Natureboi says:

    It sounds like both pilots survived. This is not what “deadliest” means. Since Annie doesn’t even know what words mean, we should assume the rest of her story is also bullshit.

  2. Isegoria says:

    The Black Cat Squadron Wikipedia entry explains:

    During the squadron’s 14 years of existence, five U-2s were shot down by PRC air defenses (using S-75 Dvina missiles), with three pilots killed and two captured. Another pilot was killed while performing an operational mission off the Chinese coast, while seven U-2s were lost during training missions, killing six pilots.

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