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Soviet MiG-19 pilot recalls the mission where he shot down a USAF RB-66 that strayed into East German airspace

‘I fired the 23-mm cannon in a rear-quarter attack from below as the target passed ahead of me. I finally ceased fire about ten kilometres from the border. The enemy aircraft exploded and in the haze of the setting sun, three red-and-white parachutes blossomed,’ Kapitán F.M. Zinoviev, former MiG-19 pilot.

The Cold War had reached its closest point to be becoming World War III during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 and although political tension had dissipated in the subsequent months, it still remained relatively high. The military forces on both sides remained on alert, ready to respond to any perceived threat. This was particularly the case on either side of the Inner German Border (IGB, between BDR and DDR). According to Michael Napier’s book In Cold War Skies, dawn on Mar. 10, 1964 heralded a foggy morning at Zerbst air base and although the fog lifted a little in the early afternoon, the visibility remained poor in thick industrial haze. Despite the poor weather, Kapitán V.G. Ivannikov, the senior pilot of the squadron, and Kapitán B. Sizov, of 35 IAP were holding QRA alert with responsibility for the southern sector of the DDR. At around 16:45hrs, a Douglas RB-66 Destroyer from the 10th TRW based at Toul-Rosière strayed into East German airspace, possibly as a result of a faulty compass. By unfortunate coincidence, however, it overflew a major Soviet army exercise that was taking place on the ground near Magdeburg. A MiG-19S flown by Kapitán F.M. Zinoviev from the Wittstock-based 33 IAP was airborne on a defensive patrol in the northern sector and it was immediately vectored towards the intruder. At the same time the Zerbst QRA flight was scrambled. As Ivannikov and Sizov climbed through the haze in full afterburner, Zinoviev had already intercepted the RB-66 and ordered the US aircraft to follow him. However, the RB-66 turned away from him onto a westerly heading and Zinoviev was instructed to engage it. He had just fired a burst from his cannons when the Zerbst-based aircraft arrived. Sizov engaged first, but did not receive authorisation to fire until he was too close, so he broke off and Ivannikov closed on the target.

Zinoviev recalls;

Douglas RB-66C Destroyer in flight.

‘I was on the runway in a matter of seconds. Visibility was half the runway length, so I could take off… and immediately the controller called: “717th, take off in afterburner!” In fact, the afterburner of the MiG-19 was rarely used on take-off. We usually took off in maximum dry power because if the afterburners did not light simultaneously, with the thrust of 3,250 kg on each engine and a take-off weight of 7,500 kg, the aircraft could easily swing out of control. I remember that the speed increased so quickly that the aircraft left the ground on its own… I had not even retracted the gear when I heard “Steer course 330, the target is hostile, arm your weapons.” I will not lie – I was quite apprehensive. Although Sizov took off after me, he was vectored onto the target first, when it reversed onto a westerly heading… After the attack by Kapitán Ivannikov the bandit slowed to about 200kts, descending to 4,000m altitude; it seems likely that this was due damage, but the aircraft remained intact and continued to fly to the west. We were a couple of dozen kilometres to the border when I heard the command to open fire and shoot down the intruder. The “RS” switch stood for “single salvo”. Only four S-5s came out and all of them hit the target, damaging the fuselage and the left engine. My instinct of self-preservation prevailed: a further rocket salvo would have been unsafe as the consequences would be unpredictable if all thirty-two RSs hit. Instead I fired the 23-mm cannon in a rear-quarter attack from below as the target passed ahead of me. I finally ceased fire about ten kilometres from the border. The enemy aircraft exploded and in the haze of the setting sun, three red-and-white parachutes blossomed. The earth was already quite dark. Visibility in the Zerbst region had now deteriorated below the minimum, so I was ordered to divert to the alternate airfield… on the landing run the Command Post warned me: “Beware, slow down, the right wheel is smoking.” In fact, it turned out to be a fuel vapour escaping through a hole in the right-hand drop tank, which looked like smoke. After I taxied into the disarming bay the engineer came up to me, called me to the right wing and pointed to a 15-centimeter fragment crushed into the pylon of the drop tank. With this trophy and the gun camera film cassette, I arrived at the Command Post and reported to the regiment about the results on the sortie. From launching to the end of the engagement, the whole flight had lasted no more than 5 to 7 minutes.’

In Cold War Skies is published by Osprey Publishing and is available to order here.

Photo credit: U.S. Air Force

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