Cold War Era

RB-47H down: when a Soviet MiG-19 downed a USAF Elint plane over the Barents Sea

On the turn the MiG-19 broke away from the RB-47H before swinging back to attack with cannon fire. Two firing passes were made and the aircraft was shot down…

During the second half of 1955 the USAF had re-equipped their main strategic Elint unit, the 55 Strategic Reconnaissance Wing (SRW), based a Forbes AFB, Kansas, with the specially-modified RB-47H variant of the B-47 Stratojet, replacing their obsolescent Boeing RB-50Gs. The RB-47H carried three Special Operators in a pressurised bomb-bay capsule. The aircraft’s primary Elint system was the APD-4 automatic receiver/analyser, supplemented by manually-operated APR-17 receivers, an ALA-6 direction finding (D/F) system and ALA-74 pulse analysers. The RB-47Hs of the 55 SRW made regular monthly detachments to the UK from where they flew Elint sorties over Europe.

The RB-47H carried a crew of six, with the pilot, co-pilot and navigator in a pressurized section in the nose. The three electronic warfare officers (EWOs), also known as “Ravens” or “Crows,” were stationed in what would be the bomb bay in a normal B-47. On typical missions, the EWOs spent about 12-14 hours working in this confined, windowless compartment, completely surrounded by electronic equipment.

On Jul. 1, 1960 an RB-47H (53-4281) of the 55th SRW based at RAF Brize Norton, Oxfordshire took off on an Elint sortie into the Barents Sea. The aircraft’s route took it up the coast of Norway, around the North Cape and then south east along the coastline of the Kola Peninsula, flying in international airspace some 50 miles (80km) off the Russian coast. As the RB-47H approached the end of the peninsula it was intercepted by a MiG-19 Farmer which flew in close formation with it. Some 50 miles (80km) off Cape Svyatoy Nos (Holy Nose Point), near the entrance to the White Sea, the RB-47H made a planned turn to the north-east, turning away from the coast. On the turn the MiG-19 broke away from the RB-47H before swinging back to attack with cannon fire. Two firing passes were made and the aircraft was shot down. Sadly only Col. Bruce Olmstead (RB-47H co-pilot) and John McKone (navigator) of the crew of six survived and all three Special Operators were lost. The Soviet Union subsequently justified the attack by claiming that the aircraft had infringed Soviet territorial waters, approaching to a point 11.83 miles (19km) north of Svyatoy Nos.

Olmstead and McKone had to eject from their stricken aircraft over the Arctic Ocean. They were imprisoned for seven months in the Soviet Union. After surviving the shot down of their RB-47H in fact, the KGB shipped Olmstead and McKone to Moscow’s feared Lubyanka prison and charged them with espionage. They were held alone in a freezing cell with little food or sleep, subjected to around-the-clock interrogation.

They knew plenty of secrets. But neither Olmstead nor McKone, gave up a thing to the KGB during seven months of solitary confinement.

“They continued to fulfill the Airman’s Creed, to never surrender,” explained retired Brig. Gen. Reg Urschler of Bellevue, a squadron mate of Olmstead’s who later commanded the 55th Strategic Reconnaissance Wing (SRW). “None of us can imagine what they went through.”

After his release Olmstead never flew again for the 55th, but he became a test pilot and, later, an air attaché in Denmark and he retired as a colonel in 1983. Post-military, he became a home-remodeling contractor. He visited Russia and hosted Russian military veterans in his home.

But those months of imprisonment stayed with him for the rest of his life.

“You can’t sit in a cell for 211 days without it affecting you,” he told the Washington Post in 1978. “You don’t forgive and forget. You forgive, and you live with it.”

The Then Capt. Bruce Olmstead and his wife, Gail, left, and Capt. John McKone and his then-wife, Connie, are reunited in January 1961 after Olmstead and McKone were released after seven months in a Soviet prison. (John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum)

Olmstead and McKone (who died in 2013) belatedly received their Silver Star medals in 2004, after Cold War veterans were made eligible for combat medals. Two years later Olmstead donated his to the 55th Wing.

Noteworthy, as reported by Dave Forster & Chris Gibson in their book Listening In, RAF Electronic Intelligence Gathering Since 1945, the loss of the RB-47H brought the activities of US units operating from the UK under greater scrutiny. It emerged that the UK was not given the route of US Elint sorties in advance, but were normally given the Navigator’s log and intelligence results from each flight some time afterwards. As such the Air Ministry was only aware in general terms of the likely aircraft track of any sortie. The Air Ministry were later passed the flight plan for the Jul. 1 RB-47H sortie, along with ground intercepts of Soviet air defence activity, including tracking data. From this it appeared that the plan had been to keep 60nm (111km) from the Soviet coast, although intercept evidence suggested the RB-47H had actually closed to 28nm (52km) before resuming its planned track, then standing off some 66nm (122km). Tracking data was inconsistent, but appeared to show the aircraft may have closed the coast again before being shot down.

The RB-47 continued in service until the more capable RC-135 replaced it in 1967.

Photo credit: U.S. Air Force

Dario Leone

Dario Leone is an aviation, defense and military writer. He is the Founder and Editor of “The Aviation Geek Club” one of the world’s most read military aviation blogs. His writing has appeared in The National Interest and other news media. He has reported from Europe and flown Super Puma and Cougar helicopters with the Swiss Air Force.

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