The story of the USAF RB-66 shot down by Soviet MiG-19s after it strayed into East German airspace

The story of the USAF RB-66 shot down by Soviet MiG-19s after it strayed into East German airspace

By Dario Leone
Dec 28 2023
Sponsored by: Helion & Company
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The hottest ‘battlefield’ of the Cold War

Divided in two for decades between the late 1940s and early 1990s, Germany was the hottest ‘battlefield’ of the Cold War. As told by Kevin Wright in his book Danger Zone, its western part was dotted by dozens of major military facilities of the reconstituted national armed forces and those of the NATO allies, foremost the US, Great Britain and France. Even more so, one-third of East Germany was under the control of the Armed Forces of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) and housed several dozens of major air and ground units.

Three Aerial Corridors

On the ground, the city of West Berlin – situated in the centre of the German Democratic Republic (GDR) – and the three occupation zones controlled by the US, Great Britain, and France, was connected to the outside world only via tightly controlled railways, waterways or autobahns. However, in the air, three Aerial Corridors connected it with West Germany. Far away from high-profile intelligence-gathering operations – like those by Lockheed U-2s – several intelligence agencies of the US, Great Britain and France exploited this fact to run covert operations along these Corridors.

Principally conducted by adapted transport or liaison aircraft which received a host of clandestine modifications- such operations often took their crews into the very centre of what was perceived as the ‘danger zone’ by NATO: the airspace over some of the most sensitive Soviet military installations.

USAF RB-66 shot down

Navigational errors – accidental and deliberate – along the Inner German Border (IGB) were not uncommon into the early 1960s, with NATO aircraft sometimes straying into GDR airspace.

On Mar. 10, 1964 a USAF RB-66 electronic reconnaissance aircraft from the 19th Tactical Reconnaissance Squadron based at Toul-Rosières in France was shot down near Gardelegen in East Germany, close to the Letzlinger Heide training area. The United States Military Liaison Mission (USMLM)’s 1964 Annual Report describes the flight as a local training flight. It happened at a time when the Soviets were conducting a major exercise in the area where it was lost.

Other accounts have tried to portray it as a failed penetration mission to gather intelligence on a major Soviet exercise taking place on the training ground at the time. Most unlikely of all, several accounts have suggested the RB-66 was operating inside one of the Corridors but given the prohibition on their use by combat aircraft and the necessity to file a prior flight plan with the Berlin Air Safety Center (BASC), make it the least credible suggestion.

RB-66C Destroyer
Douglas RB-66C Destroyer in flight.

USAF RB-66 shot down by Soviet MiG-19s

The Soviets had two Wittstock based, 33 Istrebitel nyy Aviastionyy Polk (IAP, Fighter Aviation Regiment) MiG-19s on Combat Air Patrol (CAP) in their Northern Sector when the RB-66’s intrusion was detected. Two more MiG-19s were launched by the Zerbst based Quick Reaction Alert (QRA) flight and intercepted the RB- 66 before the Wittstock aircraft did. As the US aircraft turned westwards, Kapitan FM Zinoviev was told to engage it and brought it down with a salvo of four S-5 unguided rockets followed by canon fire.

The 1964 Allied Military Liaison Mission (AMLM) annual report says that about an hour after its departure the RB-66 disappeared from the radar screen as it approached the Soviet Zone of Germany in the vicinity of Gardelegen, north-east of Helmstedt. Within a couple of hours USMLM teams were put on standby and soon departed to try and find the aircraft and its crew. By then, they believed the three crew members had managed to parachute from the doomed aircraft. Three USMLM tour vehicles managed to get close to the site but none were permitted access.

A ‘provocation’ flight

One of the crew, First Lieutenant Welch, suffered a broken leg and was subsequently treated at a Soviet military hospital in Magdeburg. He was returned to US custody on Mar. 21 with the pilot Captain David Holland and Captain Melvin Kessler following on Mar. 27, 1964. Afterwards, the USAF went to considerable effort to demonstrate that it was a problem with the RB-66’s compass that caused it to be mispositioned. The US has always firmly adhered to the navigational error explanation, whilst the Soviets insisted it was a ‘provocation’ flight to test their air defences.

The French account

The French account of the incident offers yet another perspective. They had an N-2501 Noratlas ‘Gabriel V’, operating along the Southern Corridor at the time, and their listening post at Berlin- Tegel was active. Between them, they recorded the RB-66 flying towards the IGB and then being downed by the MiGs. It suggests that the RB-66 was operating near the entrance to the Central Corridor, where they believed it was attempting to identify a new Soviet radar. The intercepted radio exchanges were simultaneously translated and recorded by the Gabriel V` and the ground station and enabled them to triangulate the position of the RB-66.

Danger Zone is published by Helion & Company and is available to order here.

Photo credit: U.S. Air Force

MiG-19

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Dario Leone

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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