How the Aurora Borealis Almost Started World War III
In the midst of the Cuban missile crisis, a U-2 spy plane pilot got lost on a mission over the arctic circle. The next thing he knew, he was 300 miles deep in Russian air space.
Of the 13 days of the Cuban Missile Crisis, one day, October 27, 1962, dubbed “Black Saturday,” stands out. That was the day U-2 pilot Major Rudy Anderson was shot down and killed by the Soviets while flying reconnaissance over Cuba. However, an even lesser known event occurred on that same day over the skies of Russia which almost triggered World War III. That incident also involved a U-2 spy plane.
The U-2 was (and still is) no ordinary aircraft. It has a lightweight frame, a powerful jet engine, and is armed with cameras rather than bombs. It looks something like a glider on steroids with a wing span of 103 feet. The plane can fly so high—73,000 feet—that the pilot must don a specialized pressure suit and fish-bowl style helmet similar to what an astronaut must wear. Should the single-seat cockpit lose air pressure, the suit is designed to inflate and keep the pilot alive. Otherwise in the thin air of the stratosphere the pilot’s blood would literally begin to boil.
One of those pilots asked to risk his life was USAF Captain Chuck Maultsby, who was stationed at Eielson Air Force Base in Alaska. He was given the difficult mission of flying his plane over the Arctic Circle to collect radioactive samples, which could yield clues on Soviet atomic weapons. The lack of visual landmarks made flights over the frozen tundra of the arctic especially dangerous and pilots had to rely on celestial navigation. The flight was a strange mix of old and new: Maultsby navigated like the explorers in the time of Christopher Columbus, but he was searching for evidence of nuclear detonations rather than new continents.
Maultsby launched at 12 a.m. on October 27 for the round-trip flight of an incredible 3,000 miles. He would have radio communication with a rescue plane, but only for the first part of the mission. The flight went well until he approached the North Pole. An aurora borealis, also known as the northern lights, obscured the stars and confused the pilot’s navigation. When he thought he was over the north pole, he executed his turn and tried to follow his path back to the Air Force base.
It soon became apparent to Chuck that not only was he lost, but that he might have flown into Soviet air space. He established radio communication with the rescue plane, but suddenly a new voice came over the radio, and this one told him to turn 30 degrees right. He flew in silence for a moment and then radioed the rescue plane pilot asking if he had heard the latest instruction over the radio. The pilot had not, and Chuck’s anxiety grew tenfold. If that pilot didn’t hear the unknown radio call, Chuck knew for sure he had strayed far west and into Soviet territory. What he didn’t know was that he was now directly over the Soviet Chukotka Peninsula, and the Russians had pinpointed the trespasser.
From the Soviet perspective, the sudden appearance of an intruder on their radar could mean a multitude of things, all of which were cause for alarm. Was this a probing mission by the U.S. in advance of an attack? Was it a spy plane trying to enter their airspace in the least populated region? Or was the blip on their radar something far worse, an advance bomber carrying nuclear bombs? Whatever was invading their airspace had to be shot down before it got any closer to the Soviets’ eastern military installations.
The unknown caller reached out to Chuck again, this time directing him to a 35-degree right turn. It was a Western-sounding voice with no hint of Russian, but who could it be? Maultsby wondered if the voice was from the Soviet Union, perhaps an accomplished Soviet linguistic expert steering him to the precise location where he could be eliminated. Or maybe they were directing him to a Soviet airstrip where he could land and the undamaged U-2, with all its secrets, would be in the hands of the Russians.
There was only one way to find out if the voice on the radio was friendly or hostile. Maultsby knew that if the caller was one of his own people, that person would know the secret code. “I challenged him,” Chuck later said, “using a code that only a legit operator would know, but there was no response.”
That moment or two of silence was terrifying. The unknown voice had been louder and clearer than the pilot of the rescue plane. Maultsby knew he must be hundreds of miles off course, to the west. He turned his plane away from the foreign radio signal and headed east.
Chuck flipped to the emergency channel and shouted “MAY DAY! MAY DAY! MAY DAY!”
The U-2 pilot was certainly in a MAY DAY situation because he knew he only had 30 minutes of fuel left. But what he didn’t know was even more terrifying: A U.S. radar installation at the western extremity of Alaska had picked up six Soviet aircraft flying upward toward Maultsby. He had penetrated 300 miles deep into enemy airspace and MiG fighter jets had launched from Pevek and Chukotka airfields. Their supersonic speed would bring them to the intruder in a matter of a few short minutes.
While Maultsby’s MAY DAY did not result in a confirmation from the rescue plane or Eielson AFB, the Strategic Air Command at Offutt AFB in Omaha, Nebraska was well aware of what was happening. At approximately 12:30 p.m. on Saturday October 27 (8:30 a.m. in Alaska) General Thomas Powers, head of SAC, was told a U-2 was lost during its sampling mission to the North Pole. Powers, who was off base when informed, immediately drove to Offutt and joined the on-duty staff at SAC Headquarters. On a large screen, the track of Maultsby’s plane over Soviet air space was highlighted, followed by the flight paths of six MiGs. The data was courtesy of a successful covert operation whereby the U.S. had breached the Soviet Air Defense System. In effect, the Air Force could now see exactly what the Soviets saw, and the MiGs were closing the gap on the lost U-2. It was alarming to say the least, but SAC had to handle the Maultsby situation carefully—they didn’t want to tip off the Soviets that they had breached their Air Defense System. They decided to share and compare information about the MiGs and the U-2 with the commander at Eielson AFB, but they made it clear that no communications indicate how this information was known, lest the Soviet’s realize the SAC intelligence secret.
The U.S. military was already at DEFCON-2: the highest state of readiness short of war, and the Soviets were in a similar heightened status. One wrong miscalculation and nuclear exchanges were terrifyingly possible. Adding to the apprehension from the Soviet perspective was a recent message from General Pliyev in Cuba to the Ministry of Defense. In it he warned that his sources thought that a likely air attack on the island would occur on October 27 or 28.
To counter the MiGs that were closing in on Chuck, the Air Force scrambled two F-102 fighter jets from Galena Air Force Base in Alaska. If Maultsby was still flying, and if he had not been shot down, these jets would protect him. The danger, however, went far beyond Maultsby, the MiGs, and F-102’s. The outcome of this potential engagement threatened the entire world. The F-102’s were armed with tactical nuclear missiles.
Because the U.S. had entered DEFCON-2, the F-102s had recently had their conventional missiles replaced with nuclear-tipped GAR-11 air-to-air missiles. Armed with these missiles, the F-102s could bring down multiple enemy aircraft with just one shot—any aircraft within a half mile of the explosion would be destroyed. Incredibly, the use of these missiles was in the hands of the pilots—there was no one to stop them from firing one if the pilots deemed it necessary. And the two pilots sent to Maultsby’s aid might very well think it necessary to respond if attacked by a MiG. The F-102 pilots did not have any other weapons on their planes except these nuclear tipped-ones, so their options were limited.
One can only imagine the tension at SAC headquarters in Nebraska. The only other place where people might be even more anxious would be at the Soviet air bases, where they still didn’t know if the intruding aircraft was the vanguard of a wave of U.S. bombers loaded with nuclear missiles or something else. The very thing President Kennedy had feared from the start—a miscalculation by individuals outside of his control—was playing out over the skies of the easternmost section of the Soviet empire.
The unknown voice spoke to Maultsby again, and this time the U-2 pilot did the only thing he could do; he tried to ignore it. But then there was yet another sound on the radio, and it sounded like Russian music.
Chuck was exhausted and frightened—he had been in the air for an astounding nine hours—but every neuron in his body was screaming escape. This was the first moment during the flight when his suppressed panic reared its head and affected him physically, causing his breathing to quicken: “I could hear my own pulse pounding in my head.”
While Maultsby dearly wished the U-2 could go faster, the plane did have one thing going for it. The U-2 was at an elevation of 75,000 feet, while the highest the MiGs could climb was 60,000 feet.
Chuck calculated that the fuel he had left would power him for only 12 more minutes, and he so he had to think quickly. He would shut down the engine and glide as far as he could, then use the tiny amount of fuel left to help with a landing or any new emergency. He made one last radio call saying he was going off the air; maybe the rescue crew would hear what he thought might be his final words.
As soon as the engine was turned off, Maultsby’s pressure suit inflated to keep his blood from boiling. He felt more alone now than ever, with only the sound of his breath to break the silence.
The plane that was built like a glider was now nothing more than that, but one that was coasting 13 miles above the USSR. Amazingly, even with no engine power, the U-2 continued to cruise at that level. Chuck began to wonder if his altimeter was stuck. It wasn’t until roughly 10 minutes into the glide that the altimeter showed the slightest change indicating the big gray bird was beginning a slow descent. There wasn’t much more Chuck could do except keep the wings level and pray—pray he’d make it to the border before he was blown out of the sky.
Chuck Maultsby’s remarkable piloting skills eventually enabled him to land on a forlorn gravel landing strip in Alaska. The MiG’s gave up the chase and the American F-102’s escorted him to the emergency landing strip.
In the skies over Cuba, major Rudy Anderson was not as fortunate. Two surface to air missiles fired by the Soviets sent Anderson and his U-2 into Cuban soil.
Excerpted from Above & Beyond: John F. Kennedy and America’s Most Dangerous Cold War Spy Mission by Casey Sherman and Michael J. Tougias. Copyright © 2018. Available from PublicAffairs, an imprint of Perseus Books, LLC, a subsidiary of Hachette Book Group, Inc.
Visit www.michaeltougias.com to listen to U-2 pilot Jerry McIlmoyle describe his close encounter with two SAMs on his mission over Cuba.