Although the Crusader was built first and foremost as a Navy interceptor, as has often been the tradition with US fighters, a photo-reconnaissance variant was also produced by Vought. Blessed with great speed and the traditional ‘long legs’ associated with all Navy aircraft, the Crusader was effectively converted into a recce platform by removing the four 20 mm cannon beneath the cockpit. In their place an equal number of camera positions were introduced in a broadened and flattened belly.
As told by Peter Mersky in his book RF-8 Crusader Units Over Cuba and Vietnam, the photo-Crusader’s first operational test came in the mid-autumn of 1962, and involved both Navy and Marine RF-8As. USAF U-2 reconnaissance flights had brought back indications, but not incontestable proof, that the Soviets had introduced intermediate-range ballistic missiles (IRBMs) into their client state, the island of communist Cuba.
On Oct. 13, in conjunction with continued USAF flights, VFP-62 and Marine squadron VMCJ-2 were ordered to stand by at Naval Air Station (NAS) Cecil Field, near Jacksonville.
The RF-8As were needed for low-level high-speed runs to confirm the earlier U-2 photos that only showed earth moving and unconfirmed construction activity. Cuban agents reported information about possible missile bases, and the US government wanted a closer look. A high-flying U-2 might rake only one to two frames a minute, but an RF-8 travelling at 600 knots at 5000 ft took several frames a second. Not only was the coverage that much greater, it was also more detailed.
While VFP-62 scrambled to get detachments to carriers in case the ‘big ships’ went on a war footing, its land-based ‘home squadron’ pre-pared for operations over Cuba. Four Marine pilots were assigned to VFP-62 to provide additional resources and fly the Navy squadron’s RF-8s. The flights duly began on Oct. 23, 1962 under the codename Blue Moon, six aircraft overflying three targets — two RF-8s apiece. Two aircraft always flew per sortie. Fourteen flights were made on Oct. 27, which proved to be the greatest number during the entire operation.
The RF-8As made two flights daily from NAS Key West, completing low-level high-speed dashes over the heavily-defended island before landing back at NAS Jacksonville, where the Crusaders’ film was downloaded and rushed for processing and interpretation at the Fleet Air Photo Lab (FAPL) owned by VFP-62. After their film was downloaded, the RF-8As returned to Cecil Field, which was just a short flight away from Jacksonville, for maintenance. They then returned to Key West for the next missions. Over a six-week period, these operations saw RF-8s bring back more than 160,000 negatives.
The Missile Crisis was in full swing when the US Navy instituted a naval blockade, challenging the Soviets’ continued movement to and from Cuba. The world has never, before or since, seemed so close to nuclear war. Finally, after a week of diplomatic furore, the Soviets agreed to dismantle the missile installations and remove them from Cuba.
While the delicate negotiations continued, so did the Blue Moon flights. Recovering at Jacksonville after a mission, each Crusader would receive another ‘dead chicken’ marking below its cockpit to denote the successful completion of the flight. This marking referred to a comical episode involving Cuban Premier Castro who, on an early visit to New York City in 1960, demanded a live chicken be killed and cooked for him on the spot to prevent someone trying to assassinate him by poisoning his food.
In addition to the ‘chicken’ markings, every Crusader had the phrase ‘Smile, you’re on Candid Camera’ painted on the lower fuselage surface immediately in front of the Station 1 camera blister.
The chronology of RF-8A sorties per day during Blue Moon was as follows:
23 October – three flown
25 October – ten flown
27 October – fourteen flown
29 October – two flown
1 November – two flown
2 November – two flown
3 November – two flown
5 November – six flown
6 November – two flown
7 November – four flown
8 November – four flown
9 November – six flown
10 November – four flown
11 November – four flown
12 November – four flown
13 November – six flown
15 November – two flown
No Navy flights were made from Nov. 15, 1962 through to the final sortie on Jun. 5, 1963.
The 12 regular squadron pilots that participated in Blue Moon received the Distinguished Cross, and VFP-62 itself the first peacetime Navy Unit Commendation, which was personally presented to the unit’s CO by President John F Kennedy when he visited the squadron at Key West on Nov. 26, 1962. The four Marine aviators who flew Blue Moon missions received their DFCs from CINCLANT, Adm Robert L Dennison, at a separate ceremony in Jacksonville. Unfortunately, the Marines were not eligible for the unit commendation because they were not technically part of VFP-62.
Capt (later Lieutenant-General) John Hudson was one of the four Marine RF-8 pilots assigned to VFP-62 during the crisis. At first, he and his squadronmates flew at 200 ft over Cuba, which was considerably lower than on subsequent missions, which were performed at a height of 1000 ft. The initial low altitude sorties produced disappointingly ‘soft’ photos because of the salt sea spray thrown up as the Crusader pilots tried to fly below Cuban radar. On subsequent Blue Moon missions, pilots would pop up to 1000 ft at 480 knots, overfly their targets, then shut off their cameras and descend once again to an egress height of 200 ft. Hudson still vividly recalls the heavy Cuban flak which nearly shot down several RF-8As.
Along with his three Marine Corps buddies, Hudson had initially undertaken the two-hour flight from his base at Cherry Point, in North Carolina, to join VFP-62 at Key West on Oct. 19. On Nov. 10, two of the Marine pilots flew a mission to commemorate the USMC’s 187th birthday, one of the jets involved being RF-8A BuNo 145611 which included this flight as one of five consecutive sorties completed during the crisis.
Although VFP-62 performed the bulk of the Crusader overflights once the Cuban situation had come to a head, Marine RF-8s from a small VMCJ-2 detachment based at the large US Navy facility at Guantanamo (`Gitmo’), on the Cuban mainland, also provided an interesting sidelight during the stand-off.
With the onset of the Cuban Crisis and in addition to the seconded pilots and groundcrews sent to the larger VFP-62 effort, a two-jet detachment flew to Guantanamo, staging through Boca Chica, in Fiorida. Young Crusader driver Capt Harold M Austin Jr was the squadron logistics officer at the time, and he was somewhat miffed at having to stay behind to ensure that the det firstly departed Cherry Point in good shape and then arrived safely in Cuba. He did eventually join the det, however, which had been administratively detached from the squadron and reassigned to the group at `Gitmo’ soon after its arrival.
Although the main reconnaissance operation was flown by the combined VFP-62/VMCJ-2 group, the ‘Gitmo’ Marines did also fly missions – especially several night photo runs. Unfortunately, the man in charge at `Gitmo’ was a non-aviator colonel who did not fully understand air operations, and this quickly became apparent to the Crusader pilots as the following episode shows.
In the wake of the shootdown of a U-2 on Oct. 27, Capt Austin was tasked with providing high-altitude pin-point photography of the missile site that had hit the high-flying USAF aircraft. The JCS suggested that the RF-8 should fly at 35,000 ft, which not only put it right in the missile envelope, but would also have a detrimental effect on the photographs taken. Austin told the ‘ground-pounder’ colonel that a high-speed low-level run would give much better coverage, and would also keep him out of the missile’s envelope.
The colonel replied that Austin should not worry – there would be four fighters offshore monitoring the photo jet’s progress. Of course, there would have been little the escort could have done against a missile except to call out where it hit the reconnaissance Crusader, and where, and if, Austin had ejected. Austin’s objections fell on deaf ears, and he flew the mission ‘very scared’.
An amusing story that highlights the sometimes intense inter-service rivalry during the crisis involves the RF-8 cameras manufactured by Chicago Aerial Industries. The USAF had been having trouble with its McDonnell RF-101A Voodoo (counterpart of the photo-Crusader), which was also a derivative of an original fighter variant of the 1950s — the large and fast F-101A was a single-seat long-range fighter that boasted an impressive straight speed performance, but never flew satisfactorily in its intended role. The RF-101 enjoyed a somewhat more successful career, and saw considerable action during the first five years of the Vietnam War.
However, during those anxious weeks of October 1962, the temperamental photo-Voodoos were down more often than up, and the fact that the jets’ cameras were not ready for such a real-world test, simply pointed to the service’s unpreparedness.
In an act of desperation, the Air Force asked Chicago Aerial if it could purchase the KA-45 cameras that were an integral part of the RF-8A’s suite — the KA-45 was one of three specific camera models fitted in four stations within the Crusader’s large fuselage, being mounted in station 1 beneath the RF-8A’s large nose intake, looking forward along the aircraft’s flight path. This dependable camera gave an excellent view of entry points for bomb runs.
Chicago Aerial told the Air Force that although 22 cameras were ready for shipment, they were already assigned to their Navy purchasers. Ultimately, the colourful USAF Chief of Staff, Gen Curtis LeMay, got involved in the deal and, leaning heavily on the Navy for past favours, got the admiral in charge to split the order with the Air Force.
The manufacturer installed the cameras in Voodoos of the USAF’s 363rd Tactical Reconnaissance Wing at Shaw AFB, in South Carolina, and finally six RF-10 1 s were ready to assume their roles at MacDill AFB in Tampa, Florida. In truth, however, although the Air Force received a lot of favourable publicity, including being featured in Life magazine, its RF-101s sat out most of the vital week of Oct. 23-28 because of problems with their camera systems.
The following video features excerpts from Thirteen Days movie and shows the famous sequence of the RF-8 Crusader Low-Level High Speed Run Over Cuba performed by Cdr William Ecker and Lt C. Wilhelmy.
RF-8 Crusader Units Over Cuba and Vietnam is published by Osprey Publishing and is available to order here.
Photo credit: U.S. Navy
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