Cold War Era

The U-2 that crashed in Bolivia after its pilot died suffering hypoxia while overflying Cuba and after US Navy F-4s failed to shoot it down

The U-2 and the Cuban Missile Crisis

Built in complete secrecy by Kelly Johnson and the Lockheed Skunk Works, the original U-2A first flew in August 1955. Early flights over the Soviet Union in the late 1950s provided the president and other US decision makers with key intelligence on Soviet military capability.


In October 1962, the U-2 photographed the buildup of Soviet offensive nuclear missiles in Cuba, touching off the Cuban Missile Crisis.

U-2 pilot Captain Robert Hickman suffers hypoxia

As told by Krzysztof Dabrowsky in his book Hunt for the U-2, Interceptions of Lockheed U-2 reconnaissance aircraft over the USSR, Cuba and People’s Republic of China, 1959-1968, once the Cuban Missile Crisis ended with the withdrawal of Soviet ballistic missiles armed with nuclear warheads (for its part the US agreed to remove similar missiles deployed in Turkey and Italy), the U-2 continued flying reconnaissance operations at least ‘close’ to Cuba.

Indeed, while avoiding a direct confrontation with their nemesis’, the S-75 SAM-system and its variants, the type thus became involved in another fatal incident in this part of the world.

On Jul. 28, 1966, Captain Robert Hickman took off from Barksdale AFB in Louisiana to make one of the regular overflights of the island. Contrary to earlier times, he was not supposed to make an overflight but was explicitly ordered not to violate Cuban airspace. Unfortunately, due to the failure of the aircraft’s oxygen supply system (as was subsequently determined), the pilot suffered hypoxia and his U-2 continued on directly for Cuba.

F-4s scrambled to shoot down Hickam’s U-2

In order to avoid an incident, the US Navy then scrambled two McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom Il interceptors from NAS Key West, in Florida, to shoot the aircraft down. Remarkably, this proved a task too much even for the powerful Phantom. Therefore, the U-2 overflew the Caribbean island without provoking any kind of reaction from the Cubans: it flew on until running out of fuel and crashing over Bolivia, where Captain’s Hickman’s body was recovered from the wreckage.

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Found by farmers

Hickam was found by farmers working in a remote area of Bolivia. The day after the crash, they arrived in the town of Oruro, having trudged through the rugged terrain bearing Hickman’s Air Force identification card and a story about a plane crash.

A team from the American Embassy was dispatched to the crash site to confirm that the plane was Hickman’s, while a Bolivian honor guard watched over his remains.

Hickman’s entire squadron attended the funeral at St. Francis Xavier Cathedral in Alexandria, VA.

Hickman was in the Air Force for 10 years. But he was planning to get out and had already taken and passed tests to become a commercial airline pilot. He received confirmation that he would be granted his release on the day he was killed, said Hickman’s widow, Pauline, to the Town Talk website.

Hunt for the U-2, Interceptions of Lockheed U-2 reconnaissance aircraft over the USSR, Cuba and People’s Republic of China, 1959-1968 is published by Helion & Company and is available to order here.

Photo credit: U.S. Air Force and U.S. Navy

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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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