In the late 1950s the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) launched a large-scale recon-naissance operation against the Soviet Union, and the Lockheed U-2 strategic reconnaissance aircraft figured most prominently in this operation. The CIA acted on the assumption that the USSR lacked the technical means for intercepting aerial targets flying above 20,000 m (65,600 ft.). As told by Yefim Gordon & Dmitriy Komissarov in their book Sukhoi Interceptors: The Su-9, Su-11, and Su-15: Unsung Soviet Cold War Heroes, initially the spy missions involving incursions into Soviet airspace were flown from Pakistani territory, the U-2 flying along the Soviet border. Then, as the Americans grew confident they could do it with impunity, the CIA decided to penetrate deep into Soviet territory. The first such intrusion took place on Apr. 9, 1960. A U-2A flown by none other than Capt. Francis Gary Powers took off from the US airbase in Peshawar, Pakistan (alias Badaber Air Station). The intruder was detected belatedly because the AD radars’ field of view was obstructed by mountains. Crossing the Soviet border, the U-2 made several passes at 20,000-21,000 m (65,620-68,900 ft.) over the PVO missile test range near Lake Balkhash in Kazakhstan, where the S-75 Dvina (SA-2 Guideline) SAM was being tested; it was not shot down for the simple reason that there were no live SAMs on site at the moment. Next, it overflew the Baikonur space centre in Kazakhstan and escaped into Iran, crossing the border near the town of Maryy (pronounced like the French name `Marie’), Turkmenia, after spending 6 hours and 48 minutes in Soviet airspace with impunity.
Of course, all hell broke loose; both the PVO’s interceptors and the air force’s tactical fighters scrambled from several bases, but the MiG-19S Farmer-C and MiG-17F Fresco-C could not reach the high-flying U-2. The 735th IAP, which was reequipping with the Su-9 at the time, was also involved. Two Fishpot-Bs scrambled from Khanabad AB, Uzbekistan; however, not being fully familiar with the type and receiving wrong instructions from the command post (which was not yet equipped with the Vozdukh-1 GCI system), flight leader Capt. Doroshenko and wingman Lt. (SG) Kudelya failed to find the U-2. This was the pilots’ first experience with pressure suits and pressure helmets, and they climbed straight to up instead of accelerating to supersonic speed in level flight as they should have—passing well below the target as a result. The fate of the Su-9, which had only just been recommended for ser vice entry, now hung by a thread; moreover, the reputation of the sec Sukhoi OKB and the pilots who had tested the Su-9 was in jeopardy. A special commission arrived from Moscow to investigate the incident and find the culprit. The commission included test pilots Vladimir S. Ilyushin (representing the OKB) and Leonid N. Fadeyev (representing GK NII VVS); the latter pilot performed a check flight, using the officially approved climb technique, and reached the required altitude of 20,000 m. Thus the Su-9 was exonerated completely; since the service pilots were really not to blame either, the PVO top command vented its wrath on the PVO Aviation’s chief of combat training, Lt.-Gen. Grigoriy F. Pogrebnyak, who was removed from office. For the two weeks that followed, were test pilots Ilyushin, Fadeyev, Gheorgiy T. Beregovoy, and Nikolay I. Korovushkin maintained combat duty at the GK Nil VVS facility in Akhtoobinsk, ready to stop a new incursion should it occur. On Apr. 26 a squadron of Su-9s flown by service pilots arrived in Akhtoobinsk, relieving the test pilots of this duty.
As the saying goes, the pitcher goes often to the well but is broken at last. On May 1, 1960, Francis G. Powers ran out of luck while flying another spy mission in a U-2A serialled 56-6693 (c/n 360). The mission had been timed to the May Day celebrations with in the hope that the Soviets would be less vigilant. This time the route, again originating in Peshawar, lay northward across the central Asian republics to the Urals region; the objective was to reconnoitre the Mayak (Lighthouse) Production Association— a plutonium enrichment facility in Ozyorsk, 150 km (93 miles) southeast of Sverdlovsk—and the Plesetsk missile facility. At first, it looked like the April scenario was going to be repeated. The spy plane entered Soviet airspace near Termez at about 0530 hrs. Moscow time, flying at 20,100 m (65,940 ft.); PVO fighter regiments stationed along the spy plane’s route repeatedly but unsuccessfully tried to intercept it, being equipped with MiG-19PMs. Yet, as the U-2 approached Sverdlovsk (now renamed back to Yekaterinburg), it crossed the area covered by the 37th and 57th SAM Brigades, which fired eight S-75 missiles at the target as it cruised leisurely at 21,740 m (71,330 ft.). The first missile, launched at 0846 hrs. Moscow time, nailed the U-2; apparently one more SAM scored a hit, finishing off the job, while the others missed and self- destructed. Powers ejected and was captured after parachuting to safety near Kosoolino railway station, later facing trial and jail.
Here we have to describe the events taking place immediately before and immediately after the shootdown. Again, the only available aircraft that stood a chance of getting at the U-2 was the Su-9. As luck would have it, that very day a pair of factory-fresh Su-9s destined for the 61st IAP at Baranovichi, Belorussia, were staging through Sverdlovsk-Kol’tsovo airport on their westbound delivery flight. (In many accounts of the shootdown these aircraft are mistakenly referred to as ‘preproduction T-3s’.) The fighters were flown by Capt. Igor’ A. Mentyukov and Capt. Anatoliy N. Sakovich (the latter was a 61st IAP pilot).
Now, the Su-9’s armament consisted solely of AAMs, and of course the fighters carried none on the delivery flight. Also, the pilots were not wearing pressure suits as the flight proceeded at low level. Nevertheless, in a gesture of despair, IA PVO commander Col.-Gen. Yevgeniy A. Savitskiy expressly ordered Sakovich to take off and ram the intruder; this was, in effect, a suicide mission, since the pilot would be unable to eject without a pressure suit. Yet, with orders at that level, and in view of the mission’s importance, the pilot complied. Sakovich took off at 0740 hrs. and was directed to a spot 150 km south of Troitsk (the name means ‘Trinity Town’). However, the guidance proved to be inaccurate and the pilot failed to find the target. After hitting ‘bingo fuel,’ Sakovich landed at the dirt strip in Troitsk.
(Interestingly, when recounting this episode for the Belorussian MoD monthly magazine Armiya (Army), Col. Nikolay P. Fila tov (ret.), a former pilot with the 61st IAP, put it as follows: ‘Many a time we received unmanned “presents” in the form of drifting reconnaissance balloons. . . . But the balloons are as nothing compared to Capt. A. Sakovich. Here’s a might-have-been Talalikhin for you! [Lt. (JG) Viktor V. Talalikhin was a Red Army air force fighter pilot who, having expended his ammunition, rammed a Heinkel He 111H with his Polikarpov I-16 near Podol’sk on the unit night of Oct. 1941 to stop the German bomber from reaching Moscow. He lost his life in so doing and was posthumously awarded the Hero of the Soviet Union title.] Few people are aware of the fact that Sakovich nearly downed the U-2 of [Francis Gary] Powers, who had dared to spoil the May Day celebrations for our country in 1960.
‘That day Anatoliy Nikolayevich [Sakovich] was at one of the military airfields near Sverdlovsk. He was then a flight commander and was ferrying Su-9 supersonic interceptors to his unit’s home base from the Novosibirsk aircraft factory. Sakovich was ordered to scramble and intercept, even though his aircraft was carrying no missiles; yet, he had orders to attack in any way he could—even ram [the adversary] if necessary! And he would have rammed it if ground control had not bungled: the [GCI] navigators were unable to guide the interceptor properly to the target.
‘The intruder then entered the area protected by the SAM guys, who walked away with the prize. This, as you know, had grievous consequences for our aviation. “We do not need aeroplanes like these!” said an angry Nikita Sergeyevich [Khrush chov] and placed his bets on the missiles, ordering the [fighter] air regiments to be disbanded. But, to give the Minister of Defence due credit, Sakovich was not left out in the cold-for his bravery he received a gold watch from the minister.’ (A gold watch with an engraved commemorative inscription from the command was no mean reward for the flying personnel in those days, and such gifts were given for saving the aircraft after an in-flight emergency—or for acting properly in exceptional circumstances like these.)
Next, Igor’ Mentyukov was ordered up at 0810 hrs. (some from sources say 0814 hrs.) with identical orders—`destroy at any cost’. He agreed, asking only that his family be taken care of. The GCI post of the 101st lAD at Uktus (this is now the other airport of Yekaterinburg) did the guidance; yet, once again ground control failed to properly guide the unfamiliar fighter. Accelerating to 2,200 km/h (1,367 mph), Mentyukov climbed to 20,750 m (68,080 ft.) but found himself 10-12 km (6.2-7.5 miles) from the target, which was flying 2,000 m (6,560 ft.) above him, but soon overtook the slow U-2. (Russian MoD records state that the Su-9 came up on the target’s anticipated track between Miass and Kyshtym at 0830 hrs., but just then the U-2 changed course, heading north toward Kyshtym.) Attempting to put the situation right, the ground controller ordered the pilot to cancel the afterburner; as a result, the Su-9 lost speed and altitude. Since Mentyukov did not have enough fuel to make a repeat attack, he had no choice but to return to Kol’tsovo and land at 0852 hrs. After being refuelled, at 0952 hrs. he was ordered up once more (I), which was utterly which pointless because the U-2 had already been destroyed.
(lt may be mentioned that much later, in 1996, Mentyukov again came up with a fish story—circulated by the Russian media-that it was he who had downed the target with the wake of his jet by crossing in front of the U-2! Imagine that! Also, he claimed that his aircraft was mistakenly fired upon by the 57th Brigade’s SAM Battalion 1, located at Monetnyy Township and commanded by Capt. Shelud’ko, and that he barely managed to take evasive action. Yet this, too, is a statement open to doubt; Mentyukov was flying at low level and at right angles to the U-2’s course, and he could not have seen the incoming missiles.)
Sukhoi Interceptors: The Su-9, Su-11, and Su-15: Unsung Soviet Cold War Heroes is published by Schiffer Publishing and is available to order here.
Photo credit: From the Powers Family Collection, Alan Wilson from Stilton, Peterborough, Cambs, UK and U.S. DoD via Wikipedia
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