Because his Sukhoi Su-9 was in ferry configuration, it carried no armament. Seemingly, captain Igor Mientiukov’s task was impossible to fulfill, but the order was an order and he scrambled in great haste.
The Lockheed U-2 is probably the best known spy-aircraft ever, famous for the exploits of its pilots over or near hostile territories. Indeed, the bold and provocative operations flown by the CIA-operated Lockheed U-2 reconnaissance aircraft over the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics epitomized the rivalry between the United States of America and the Soviet Union during the early to middle Cold War period.
Much has been published about some of the overflights in question, especially the one on May 1, 1960 that ended with the downing of US pilot Francis Gary Powers. However, what kind of experiences the Soviets went through while not only trying to detect and track, but also intercept and shoot down Powers’ high-flying spy-aircraft remains largely unknown.
As explained by Krzysztof Dabrowski in his book Hunt for the U-2, the Soviets detected the intruding aircraft as early as 05:36hrs local time in the morning. By 06:00hrs the HQ and the main air defence post of the V-PVO in Moscow took over the coordination of efforts aimed at intercepting the foreign aircraft, while an hour later Marshal Siergiey Biryuzov arrived there to supervise related actions, Meanwhile Khrushchev learned of the incident and as could have been expected was indignant, suspecting that a US reconnaissance mission on May 1 was a deliberate provocation. He ordered the intruder to be destroyed at all cost and was voicing his displeasure with the V-PVO’s inability to deal with it. In response Marshal Biryuzov exclaimed that if he could he would turn himself into a missile and down the ‘damned intruder’.
Meanwhile, air defences all over the southern USSR were placed on full combat alert and at the same time all civilian aircraft were instructed to land at the nearest field. With the skies cleared the Soviets were now contemplating how to deal with the intruder. The longer its flight went on, the better it was tracked by multiple radars, and eventually it became obvious that it was heading for Sverdlovsk. This was good news for the Soviets because the city was defended by SAM sites and fighter units were also based in the vicinity. For these reasons there was a realistic chance of finally bringing down the American reconnaissance aircraft.
Since nobody could guarantee that the U-2 would enter the engagement zone of the SAMs it was decided to scramble interceptors of the V-PVO first. Bearing in mind Khrushchev’s directive ‘to destroy the target at all cost’, General Yevgeny Savitskiy – commander of the fighter Aviation of the V- PVO – issued an order to engage the intruder with all flights on alert located in the area of the foreign aircraft’s course, and to ram it if necessary.
The dubious privilege of carrying out this order fell to captain Igor Mientiukov. It so happened that – by pure coincidence – on Apr. 30, 1960 he made a refuelling stop at Kolcovo air base outside Sverdlovsk, while delivering a brand-new Sukhoi Su-9 (NATO reporting name: Fishpot) from the manufacturer to an operational unit. Instead of continuing his voyage on the next day, he was ordered to scramble and destroy a high-flying target. Because his Sukhoi was in ferry configuration, it carried no armament: his jet was designed without any guns, and had no air-to-air missiles installed because none were available at Kolcovo. Seemingly, Mientiukov’s task was impossible to fulfill, but the order was an order and he scrambled in great haste. Once airborne, the pilot established radio contact with ground control, and not only received information about the target but also a clear order to ram it. The mission was for all practical purpose suicidal, for even if the pilot survived the collision the effects of a high-altitude ejection under such circumstances were likely to be that.
Captain Mientiukov was guided by ground control to intercept the U-2 on a rear chase course. When the distance to the target was about 25km the pilot was ordered to jettison external fuel tanks and to ignite the afterburner. The speed of his mount rapidly rose to Mach 1.9-2.0, while he climbed to 20,000m. Just as the distance to the U-2 decreased to 12 km the American aircraft made a turn and the Soviet pilot – who still had no visual contact with the target – was instructed to follow.
However, when flying at such a high speed and altitude, the Su-9 – like most of other interceptors of the time – was not particularly manoeuvrable. As a result, Captain Mientiukov overshot the target by 8,000 metres. Considering his high speed, this was actually no much as it might appear at first glance. However, he was now in front of his target and out of position to ‘simply’ turn and re-attack. Therefore ground control ordered Mientiukov to cut the afterburner and Ipse speed. However, just as the Sukhoi-pilot complied with the order received the next one: to disengage and leave the area, immediately. In the meantime, Power’s U-2 was about to enter the engagement zone of the SAMs protecting Sverdlovsk, and the first missile salvo was already airborne. Now it was better for friendly aircraft to get out of the way.
Hunt for the U-2 is published by Helion & Company and is available to order here.
Top Image: From the Powers Family Collection
Photo credit: Alan Wilson from Stilton, Peterborough, Cambs, UK via Wikipedia