Cold War Era

That Time a Soviet Tu-16 Crashed Into Sea After Buzzing USS Essex Aircraft Carrier

‘I remember the Tu-16 coming over the flight deck from starboard to port flying a couple hundred yards and appeared to have stalled hitting his starboard wing tip cartwheeling and exploding,’ Stephen Garbarini former USS Essex crew member.

Taken on May 25, 1968 the video in this post shows a Soviet Tupolev Tu-16 Badger bomber flown by Commander A. Pliyev crashing into the Norwegian Sea after buzzing USS Essex aircraft carrier. Noteworthy the Tu-16 overflew USS Essex just 15 meters above the sea.

After the first low flyby the bomber seemingly disappears into the sunny haze of the horizon but then it returns. And this time flies even lower, appearing to slow down as it does so. It looks like it’s almost parallel to the deck of the carrier as it passes, that’s how low – and slow – it’s flying.

The video pauses at the 27-second mark – perhaps to denote the moment things went amiss. The Tu-16 banks up and briefly disappears back into the haze, this time in the opposite direction. It returns into view, now flying in the horizon perpendicular to the aircraft carrier. The video cuts to sailors and airmen now on the deck of the carrier, clearly engrossed in what’s going on out at sea. In the distance, a plume of thick dark smoke can be seen.

At the end it’s possible to see a second Tu-16 flying around trying to find out what happened to the other plane.

Stephen Garbarini was a former USS Essex crew member who attended the accident. He remembers: ‘I was there on the flight deck. I was an aircraft electrician in VS 34. I remember him coming over the flight deck from starboard to port flying a couple hundred yards and appeared to have stalled hitting his starboard wing tip cartwheeling and exploding. We were launching planes and had helos up as plane guards they went right over to the crash site to see if they could help to no avail.’

Another former USS Essex crew member recalls: ‘I was there and watched the entire thing while working on the flight deck.  I was a helicopter mechanic in HS-9 at the time. When it overflew the flight deck you could feel the heat and smell at jet exhaust. After the flight deck overfly (starboard to port) he continued to fly away from the ship at low level. He gained a little altitude and started to make a left turn, leveled back out, lost altitude and just when it looked like he was going to make a controlled ditching his left wing dipped and hit the water and then he cartwheeled in a ball of flame.. Our helicopters were in the air already and made a beeline for the crash, hovered in the smoke but no one survived.’

Footage from The National Archives in Washington.

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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