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Cortez, Colorado

Posted by on April 16, 2014

You already know, if you read the earlier blog, that we turned North in Gallup, New Mexico and stopped in Cortez, CO.  Originally we planned to spend four days visiting this area. (we ended up staying eight days) It’s a nice little town about 8500 population in Montezuma County. I’m sure we will return here again, there is so much to see in the 50+ miles in any direction.  It’s located in the SW corner of the state.  Only about six square miles, this town is a great base for visiting many of the natural attractions and byways; Mesa Verde NP, Hovenweep NM, San Juan Skyway and Trail of the Ancients. The historic downtown has many very good restaurants and beautiful murals on the commercial buildings.  The Visitor Center is not to be missed either. 

There is a story about the Cortez airport that was brought to my attention by my dad, who was interested in the town we were staying.   He asked me to stop at the airport to investigate something he read about.  Dad has been a pilot for about 72 years, (yes still flying at age 92) so anything within the realm of aviation gets his attention.  So what we found when we visited the lobby of the airport was this:

Many people know the Cuban missile crisis and the Berlin Wall were milestones of the Cold War. But a lesser-known drama in the decades-long tensions between the United States and its communist foes played out in Cortez, Colorado.  The United States had invited Taiwanese pilots to train to fly spy planes, nicknamed “Dragon Lady” and “Black Cat,” for surveillance over mainland China. President Dwight D. Eisenhower didn’t want to put American pilots in the air above the communist country.
Months before  Francis Gary Powers was shot down in May 1960 over the Soviet Union, there was “A Miracle in Cortez”  A Lockheed U-2 reconnaissance aircraft made an emergency nighttime forced landing August 3, 1959, at the Cortez Municipal Airport.  Major H. Mike Hua (now retired as General)  was on a training flight originating at Laughlin AFB, Texas; the U-2 aircraft engine flamed out at 70,000 feet.  Maj. Hua established best glide and was able to navigate through the clouds down through a valley to a lighted airport that wasn’t on his map nor did he know of its existence beforehand. The airport was the only one in the area with a lighted runway which was illuminated overnight.
He tried to restart three times in the turbulent clouds and failed. Still in the clouds, Hua didn’t want to eject because he was uncertain about the terrain below. And another concern was becoming pressing, some of the peaks in this area of Colorado were 14,000 feet and  while still above the clouds the terrain below was unknown.
There had been a lot of discussion on the Cortez City Council about turning off the airport lights at night to save money. But they were still lit at 11:30 p.m. that August night.  Here he was alone in the dark sky trying to land an aircraft that was hard to land in daylight on a good day. Now it was dark and he had no landing gear. He made a belly landing and the aircraft remained upright.
U2 Spy Plane

Lockheed U-2 Spy Plane

Imagine what the airport manager and radio operator on duty that night  in 1959 thought, when a Chinese-accented pilot, wearing a pressure suit, emerged out of an aircraft that no one had ever seen before.  Then telling them he just made this forced landing after flying at 70,000 feet! This must have been something like an old Sci-Fi movie, but with a great ending.

 

Mike Hua in his pressure suit

Mike Hua in his pressure suit

The U-2 that miraculously survived so many obstacles to make an emergency landing in Cortez rests on its laurels today on exhibit at the Blackbird Air-park at Edwards Air Force Base. That’s a destination we will surely try to visit one day and photos will be added here.

 

H Mike Hua

H. Mike Hua

 This is is what Mike Hua said about this experience “Though this incident had a fortuitous ending, it was for me a solemn lesson about life. I do not believe that it was mere luck that brought me through the difficult moments. Think of the coincidences: The U-2 breaks out of the clouds in a valley, flying in the proper direction; within this valley lies the Cortez airfield, with no others around for 100 miles; the Cortez city council, against its better judgment, decides to leave the airfield lights on at night; and I had just the right altitude—no more, no less—required to land on such a short runway. For me, the conclusion to be drawn from all these “coincidences” is inescapable. My prayer was answered.”

 

If you want to read a more detailed report of this event here is a link to the  Air force Magazine 1989 article.

 

Now we are off to see Natural Bridges National Monument and Valley of the Gods.

 

 

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