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During the early part of the Cold War, the US Air Force needed an aircraft to gather information about Soviet air defense radar systems, including details like their location, range and coverage. The electronic reconnaissance RB-47, developed from the B-47E, met this requirement.
Flying in radio silence at night along the border of the Soviet Union (and sometimes flying over the Soviet Union) and other communist nations, RB-47s collected essential intelligence about the size and capability of Soviet air defense radar networks.
RB-47 covering over 1,000 kilometres of Soviet territory
As told by Krzysztof Dabrowsky in his book Defending Rodinu Volume 1: Build-Up and Operational History of the Soviet Air Defence Force 1945-1960, nightly overflights in the early months of 1954 were undoubtedly dramatic but the climax would come in May that year. Before describing the unfolding action, a few words explaining the background which led to it seem fitting: even a cursory look at the map will show why northern Russia was a sensitive area if it ever came to an all-out confrontation between the US and the USSR.
It is therefore not surprising that the Americans, including General Curtis LeMay who headed the USAF’s SAC, were keen to obtain photographic intelligence of Soviet installations, including airfields, which were located there. A mission with this purpose in mind was planned for May 1954: three RB-47s of the USAF’s 91st Strategic Reconnaissance Wing were to approach Soviet airspace, with one aircraft tasked to not only penetrate it but to cover well over 1,000 kilometres of Soviet territory flying from Murmansk to Arkhangelsk, then Onega and turning southwest to escape into Finnish airspace.
Ascertaining MiG-17 deployment
In particular, it was to photograph nine Soviet airfields specifically to ascertain if the new MiG-17 fighter was being deployed from them. As subsequent events were to show, the Americans not only found out they were, but got to see them somewhat too close for comfort.
The three RB-47Es took off from RAF Fairford near Oxford early on May 8, 1954. Initially the mission was uneventful but after refuelling off southern Norway at a designated departure point about 100 miles north of Murmansk, two of the three aircraft turned back while the third flew on towards Soviet airspace. The crews of the two were not briefed on the third’s mission as the fewer people that were in the know about such a sensitive undertaking the better, yet in what was a display of true professionalism, they did not break radio silence to inquire but silently returned to base. The third RB-47, which was crewed by Captain Harold Austin, pilot; Captain Carl Holt, co-pilot; and Major Vance Heavilin, navigator, pressed on, soon finding themselves over Soviet territory.
Meanwhile the Soviets detected not just one but two intruders. The second supposedly penetrated Soviet airspace in the vicinity of Pechenga before exiting into Finland, and no attempt was made to intercept it. However, the first was clearly on a heading leading it ever deeper over the Soviet Union, becoming the focus of air defence efforts. The intruder was tracked flying at an altitude of 12,000 metres with a speed of 760-840 km/h. Captain Austin’s RB-47 which maintained an altitude of 40,000 feet (12,192 metres and 440 knots (814.88 km/h) airspeed.
Attacked by 13 MiG-17 fighters
In order to intercept it, the Soviets scrambled no fewer than 13 MiG-17 fighters from six airfields.
According to the Americans, they were first intercepted by a trio of MiGs, but the Soviets departed without undertaking any action. Then, as they approached Arkhangelsk, six MiGs showed up, of which four made firing passes one after the other. The third attacker was met with return fire but the RB-47’s tail guns jammed after just two seconds; yet it was enough for the MiG to hastily break off the engagement. Lastly, the fourth MiG made its attack scoring a single hit with a cannon shell passing through the left wing and exploding in the fuselage.
This could have been catastrophic, for the projectile burst in the vicinity of one of the fuel tanks but luckily its effectiveness was limited; only the intercom was knocked out and the radio damaged such that it would transmit only on one channel. Subsequently this formation of MiGs flew away, being replaced by another trio. Two MiGs tried their luck, but their fire was off the mark, while the third did not attack at all but instead flew in formation alongside the RB-47 for a few minutes.
In the meantime, the Americans were over Finland and the Soviets turned back, finally leaving them alone but, according to Captain Holt, not before the third MiG’s pilot gave them a salute.
Russian sources describe the unfolding action differently
Available Russian sources describe the unfolding action somewhat differently.
Two MiG-17 fighters of the 1619th IAP, flown by Senior Lieutenants Zhiganov and Kitaychik spotted the violator in the vicinity of Severomorsk with the foreign aircraft flying around 4,500 metres higher. Ordered by ground control, they jettisoned their external fuel tanks and climbed to engage. The MiGs caught up with the US aircraft in the vicinity of Afrikanda (considering is located in the far north, a humorous reaction to the name, is all but inevitable) and opened fire from a distance of around 800-1,000 metres with the Americans replying in kind after their first volley. Despite a lengthy chase and expending all their ammunition, the Soviets were unable to bring the US aircraft down. In addition, Captain Kurbatov of the 614th IAP was also able to intercept – almost, since he did not get closer than about 2,000 metres – but his fire from such a long distance proved ineffective.
Obviously, the US and Soviet versions of events differ considerably in the details, yet it remains that the MiGs failed in their efforts while the Americans got away.
Low on fuel
Escaping the Soviets’ reach did not end the Americans’s woes yet. They soon found themselves to be low on fuel. A KC-97 tanker aircraft was waiting for them off Norway but since the RB-47 failed to arrive on schedule from what the tanker’s crew thought was a ‘training mission,’ it flew away. Captain Austin heard over the radio that the tanker was leaving the orbit area while his efforts to communicate with it failed due to their transmitter being damaged.
Now it seemed that having run the gauntlet of Soviet MiG attacks, the aircraft, with the photo-intelligence it gathered at great risk, would be lost due to something as simple as running out of fuel.
Back at Fairford at last
However, the Americans had a lucky day: calling via the only frequency he was able to transmit upon, Captain Austin managed to get a tanker pilot to launch from the RAF base at Mildenhall. Tanker pilot Jim Rigley recognised Austin by his voice, which was enough for him to take off. He did so in great haste without permission or any other formalities. Subsequently, the Base Commander threatened him with court martial and British Air Traffic Control gave him a violation, but both were ‘fixed’ personally by General LeMay. Having met with the tanker and refuelled, the RB-47 was able to reach Fairford, where it landed.
Once on the ground the aircraft’s battle damage prompted its crew chief to ask Captain Austin: ‘What the hell kind of seagull did you hit?’
Two Distinguished Flying Crosses each
The mission described was arduous but not in vain, for the photographic material obtained was both of good quality and considerable intelligence value. All three crewmembers of the RB-47E involved were decorated with two Distinguished Flying Crosses each. When General LeMay presented the medals to the airmen, he was somewhat apologetic that decorations of a higher order were not awarded but explained that a recommendation for the Silver Star had to be approved in Washington, which could cause two problems: first they would get it ‘screwed up,’ and secondly, ‘I’d have to explain this mission to too damn many people who don’t need to know.’
Most fighter pilots are cowards
As for Soviet defensive efforts, General LeMay inquired why the RB-47 was not shot down, to which Captain Austin replied that there was no doubt in his mind the MiG-17 pilots could have shot it down, if they had been willing to come right up the tailpipes. In response, General LeMay stated that he was ‘convinced that most fighter pilots are basically cowards anyway.’
In all fairness, the MiG-17 had a hard time keeping up with the RB-47 at the altitude and speed the latter flew, which obviously negatively affected their gunnery as well, Thus, the Soviet pilots’ failure did not result from a lack of skill or spirit but rather from the limitations of their mounts. Moreover, General LeMay also said, ‘There are probably several openings today in command positions there, since you were not shot down.’
He was spot on with this remark for the commander of the Soviet Northern Fleet’s aviation, General Ivan Borzov, who was responsible for air defence in the area where the RB-47’s mission took place, was relieved of his post. He was transferred to head a training establishment but did not stay long in ‘purgatory,’ with his career resuming with new command assignments by the end of the following year.
Defending Rodinu Volume 1: Build-Up and Operational History of the Soviet Air Defence Force 1945-1960 is published by Helion & Company and is available to order here.
Photo credit: U.S. Air Force