U-2D #56-6721, on display at Blackbird Airpark in Palmdale, California, has quite a story to tell. Our story begins nine months before Francis Gary Powers was shot down, before the U-2 became a household name. On August 3, 1959, Taiwanese pilot Hsichun Mike Hua was on his seventh training mission in this very aircraft, flying from Laughlin Air Force Base in Texas, to Ogden, Utah and back, practicing navigation by the stars.
On his way back from Ogden, Hua’s engine flamed out at 70,000 feet above Delta, Utah. His pressure suit inflated as he began to descend toward the thick clouds below. When his pressure suit inflated it constricted his neck, and limited mobility to all of his limbs. Hua tried to restart his J57 engine multiple times, to no avail. As he descended into the clouds, he encountered rough air the aircraft became very difficult to keep under control. He considered bailing out, but he hesitated because the terrain below him was obscured. Hua was over the Rocky Mountains and knew that his aircraft was descending through the altitude of the peaks surrounding him. He called to a local Air Force Base, but no one answered. Dark, alone, surrounded by mountains that he couldn’t see; this was a very bad situation.
Finally, Hua emerged from the clouds. He peered to both sides of his aircraft, and saw the dark silhouettes of mountains stretching above his altitude. Right in front of him, he could see the lights of a city, which we now know was Cortez, Colorado. Hua carefully balanced his aircraft at best glide speed and headed toward the lights. As he got closer, he spotted alternating blue and white flashes, which was the rotating beacon at Cortez Municipal Airport. Eventually, he got close enough to spot runway lights.
Still, Hua was faced with a tough situation. Landing the U-2, even under the best conditions, is one of the most difficult feats in aviation. Under normal circumstances, a ground crew in a fast car will actually chase the aircraft on the runway as it lands, giving landing feedback to the pilot via radio, just to perform the procedure safely. Hua had no chase car. He was landing at an unfamiliar airport in the dark with his pressure suit inflated, deadstick, with only six prior missions under his belt.
Hua, after gliding over 200 miles from the point which he flamed out, finally landed. When his tires touched the tarmac, his landing gear collapsed. He was unable to keep the wings level as the belly scraped along. His left wingtip touched the pavement which caused him to ground loop. Incredibly, he and the aircraft were in one piece.
He hopped out of his crippled U-2 and walked to the FBO, where he found the airport manager. The manager couldn’t believe his eyes. There stood a Taiwanese man dressed in a pressure suit, speaking in a foreign accent, taking him to a downed aircraft he’d never heard of before. The manager told Hua how he was just about to extinguish the lights and leave for the night.
Laughlin Air Force Base was contacted, who immediately sent a C-124 cargo aircraft to investigate and collect the wreckage. It turned out that a leaky fuel line caused the near fatal flameout. The aircraft, shown above, was repaired and sent back into service. Hua was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross. This tale is now referred to as the Miracle at Cortez.