Cold War Era

The story of the USMC EF-10B aircrew that penetrated Cuban airspace and the Skyknight ELINT missions flown during the Cuban Missile Crisis

USMC EF-10B Skyknight over Cuba.

Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev escalated the military build up of Cuba from April 1962 with his decision to secretly establish medium and intermediate range ballistic missile (MRBM and IRBM) sites on the island. Before the Soviets could establish these sites, they needed an air defence umbrella to keep the prying eyes of American U-2 spyplanes at bay. The Soviets chose the SA-2 SAM – a proven U-2 killer – to defend the MRBM and IRBM sites. The SA-2 relied on a combination of early warning, target acquisition and fire control radars.

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As told by Joe Copalman in his book F3D/EF-10 Skyknight Units of the Korean and Vietnam Wars, at the same time the US Marine Corps flew around Cuba in their attempt to keep the rapidly developing EOB up to date, the CIA conducted U-2 overflights to monitor Cuba’s military build up. On Aug. 29, imagery from a CIA overflight confirmed the existence of at least eight SA-2 sites in western Cuba. VMCJ-2 confirmed the sites were active shortly thereafter when a pair of EF-10B Skyknights, with ECMOs CWO Marty Lachow and SSgt William Wood on board, both detected emissions from the ‘Fan Song’ fire control and tracking radar. While Khrushchev’s plan to erect IRBM and MRBM launch sites in Cuba remained secret, the establishment of multiple SA-2 sites indicated that the communists were up to something worth defending.

The ‘13 days’ of the Cuban Missile Crisis

Given the SA-2 threat in Cuba, in mid October CINCLANT authorised Operation Blue Moon – a series of low level photo reconnaissance missions flown primarily by US Navy RF-8As from VFP-62, with assistance from VMCJ-2’s RF-8s and USAF RF-101 Voodoos. Concurrent with the Blue Moon missions that began on Oct. 23, VMCJ 2 continued to undertake ELINT flights around the periphery of Cuba to determine the location of air defence systems.

On Oct. 14, 1962, imagery from a U 2 overflight revealed what the Soviets had erected the SA 2 sites to defend – nuclear capable SS 4 MRBMs. Another flight two days later discovered more SS 4s, as well as longer ranged SS 5 IRBMs. Placement of these missiles in Cuba meant the Soviets could strike nearly anywhere in the continental USA with far less warning than with intercontinental ballistic missiles launched from within the USSR. So began the ‘13 days’ of the Cuban Missile Crisis.

USMC ‘Whales’

As tensions escalated, US Marine Corps ‘Whales’ (as EF-10B Skyknights were nicknamed) stood ready to provide jamming of ‘Fire Can’ and ‘Whiff’ AAA radars in Cuba, but crews remained concerned about the ‘Fan Song’ radars used to guide SA-2s to their targets, for there was little known about the system. Responding to pressure from Castro to defend the island from air attack, local Soviet SAM commanders escalated the crisis significantly on Oct. 27 when they gave the order to fire on a USAF U 2 without authorisation from Moscow, bringing the aircraft down and killing its pilot, Maj Rudolph Anderson. Khrushchev relented the next day, agreeing to withdraw the IRBMs and MRBMs from Cuba.

The US Marine Corps continued to fly ELINT missions around Cuba for the rest of the decade until VMCJ-2 retired its EF-10Bs – as much to keep tabs on Castro’s air defences as to expose new ECMOs to Soviet built emitters before they deployed to Vietnam. These flights carried the risk of interception by Cuban MiGs. Due to the ranges involved in these sorties, communication between ‘Whale’ crews and their controllers often got spotty, resulting in occasional unintended penetrations of Cuban airspace, luckily with no hostile response. To remedy this, VMCJ-2 outfitted several EF-10Bs with an additional high frequency (HF) radio, enabling controllers to warn crews at longer ranges. Aircraft so equipped carried a wire antenna running from just behind the cockpit to the top of the tail, with another wire connecting to the fuselage on the left side of the aircraft.

Pissing Castro off

Despite this fix, incursions still occurred, typically the result of winds aloft and cloud cover obscuring the Cuba coastline, giving pilots no visual reference. This was the case in 1967 when 1Lt Terry Whalen was an ECMO on such a flight;

‘Some guys you liked flying with, some you didn’t, but there was one guy, his name was Ariel Cross. I got to know him pretty well. He was a quiet guy and I’m a smart aleck, and I was always trying to get him to lighten up a little bit. We used to fly down to NAS Key West and fly around Cuba to piss Castro off. It was good training.

‘I was flying down there with Ariel one day, and he kind of drifted into Cuban airspace. Supposedly, they scrambled a couple of jets to see what was going on, and the Navy scrambled a couple of jets to see what we were doing. Nothing happened, but it could have been a bad incident, I suppose. We got back, and I thought it was funny, but Ariel, being such a serious guy, he was really angry at himself. I kept joking about getting to go to Cuba and drink their booze, and all that stuff, but he wasn’t having any of it.’

F3D/EF-10 Skyknight Units of the Korean and Vietnam Wars is published by Osprey Publishing and is available to order here.

Photo credit: U.S. Navy and U.S. Marine Corps

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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