Home Cold War Era Voodoo over Cuba: the RF-101 Involvement in the Missile Crisis of October 1962

Voodoo over Cuba: the RF-101 Involvement in the Missile Crisis of October 1962

by Dario Leone
Voodoo over Cuba: the RF-101 Involvement in the Missile Crisis of October 1962

The RF-8A pilots also cast doubt upon the ability of USAF photo interpreters, and they were annoyed that the USAF crews, unlike the Crusader pilots, were allowed to discuss their mission with the Press. This gave the impression that the Voodoos’ contribution was the main one, even though they flew comparatively few sorties.

Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev’s attempts to foment discontent in North Africa, Latin America and particularly in Cuba to distract the US and disguise the weakness of his own regime, precipitated his choice of an easy political target.

He extended his threats against America by locating medium-range ballistic missiles in Cuba, and the ensuing Missile Crisis of October 1962 gave US forces their first major test since the Korean War. The 363rd TRW was involved from Oct. 21, when the wing deployed Voodoos to MacDill AFB, Florida, six hours after its first alert notice. Led by Col Arthur McCartan, the wing’s role was to supply detailed photographs of the Soviet missile sites that were then still under construction. A U-2 mission on Aug. 29 had provided a photographic mosaic of the country, showing eight SA-2 sites being built. More sites and 40 MiG-21 fighters were revealed in another U-2 flight on Sep. 5, and Il-28 ‘Beagle’ tactical bombers, which were much later found to have been equipped with RDS-4 nuclear weapons, were photographed being assembled at San Julian airfield.

As told by Peter E Davies in his book RF-101 Voodoo Units in Combat, flights over the island by pairs of RF-101s began on Oct. 26, three days after US Navy RF-8A Crusaders of VFP-62 had commenced monitoring Soviet activity in Cuba as part of Operation Blue Moon. Shaw’s 9th TRS RB-66Cs and 16th TRS R3-66Bs also stood alert at MacDill – where more than 200 aircraft rehearsed large-scale strikes on Cuba — to provide further photographic and night-flight electronic intelligence. Operation Plan in Complete Format 312, recommended by the Joint Chiefs of Staff, included air strikes followed by a ground invasion of Cuba one week later. The volume of small-arms fire aimed at the reconnaissance aircraft up to Oct. 29 showed that such a move would be strongly opposed.

The US Nary specialised in low-altitude, high-speed photo-reconnaissance using Chicago Aerial Industries KA-45 4.5-inch x 4.5-inch format cameras, whereas the USAF had optimised its tactical reconnaissance aircraft for medium and high-altitude operations. The initial Voodoo sorties yielded disappointing results as their large-format 9-inch x 9-inch KA-2 cameras did not produce useable images during fast, low-altitude sorties due to mismatches between camera settings, speed and altitude. Image blurring occurred at altitudes below 500 ft, and some missions were flown at 200-250 ft, with camera settings for higher altitudes. The KA-2 system was optimised for altitudes of around 850 ft at 400 knots, or 1300 ft with the RF-101 flat out at 637 knots — its maximum sea-level speed, which was considered necessary over Cuba to avoid the SA-2 missile threat. Clear imagery from an altitude of 200 ft could only be ensured by flying at about 250 knots. The RF-101’s KA-1 system, derived from the K-38 used in the RF-84F, was effective at 14,000 ft and 400 knots, or up to 786 knots at 28,000 ft.

Voodoo over Cuba: the RF-101 Involvement in the Missile Crisis of October 1962

The RF-8A pilots also cast doubt upon the ability of USAF photo interpreters (Pis), and they were annoyed that the USAF crews, unlike the Crusader pilots, were allowed to discuss their mission with the Press. This gave the impression that the Voodoos’ contribution was the main one, even though they flew comparatively few sorties.

After the downing of a U-2 (and the death of its pilot, Maj Rudolf Anderson) by an SA-2 during a flight over Cuba on Oct. 27, President John F Kennedy approved retaliatory strikes on SAM sites and MiGs. However, before these could be flown, Khrushchev ordered his forces to stand down after he realised that his plans to keep the missiles a secret had failed. Reconnaissance overflights continued so as to verify the removal of Soviet weapons, although United Nations’ (UN) insistence on using a neutral reconnaissance force rather than USAF/US Navy flights curtailed the operation briefly until Oct. 29, when RF-101 and RF-8 camerawork showed that construction was still very much underway at several SS-4 nuclear-missile launch sites. A further UN halt to US flights delayed further verification sorties until Nov. 2, when it became clear that Il-28 bombers were still being assembled in Cuba.

On that day an RF-101C was modified with a World War 2-era K-18A camera that passed a film strip over an aperture strip at a constant speed that matched the ground speed of the aircraft over its target, producing clear imagery in one continuous photograph. Several more Voodoos were equipped with K-18As, using a stereoscopic facility, and they began missions on Nov. 10 to monitor the continued assembly of Il-28s.

A better photographic solution to the RF-101’s low-altitude image clarity problems was found by borrowing 24 of the US Navy’s lighter, smaller-format KA-45s. One of these was duly used as the 6-inch focal length forward-oblique camera in the nose of the Voodoo. Two more 6-inch side-oblique KA-45s and a 3-inch vertical KA-45 were also installed in the second camera compartment. KA-45 installations could cope with rapid image motion at altitudes below 500 ft. KA-45s had already been installed in four 15th TRS RF-101Cs at Don Muang RTAFB in a trial fitting as part of Project Toy Tiger for the Operation Able Mable reconnaissance effort in Southeast Asia, which had commenced in October 1961.

Voodoo over Cuba: the RF-101 Involvement in the Missile Crisis of October 1962
This print is available in multiple sizes from AircraftProfilePrints.com – CLICK HERE TO GET YOURS. RF-101C Voodoo 186th TRG, 153rd TRS, 56-0166 / 1970

The highly persuasive USAF Chief of Staff, Gen Curtis LeMay, who had advocated bombing of Soviet installations in Cuba, insisted that the KA-45 cameras should be supplied to the 363rd TRW at MacDill so that the USAF’s reconnaissance effort would not be overshadowed by the US Navy. More aircraft had the KA-45 high-speed cameras installed after the Cuba affair.

Toy Tiger Voodoos also had 12-inch focal length KA-47— split vertical cameras (which worked better at night) in place of their KA-1s, and a C-1 photoflash detector to operate with a pod of 80 M-123 photoflash cartridges, carried externally on an MB—7 centreline rack. The pods, like many of the initial KA-2 units came from redundant RF-84F Thunderflashes. The aircraft were also modified for TLQ-8 jammers. On Nov. 3, 1962 the Toy Tiger RF-101Cs were temporarily transferred to the US after a few introductory missions from Don Muang for possible use over Cuba.

One advantage the RF-101C had over the RF-8A was that it had an AN/AHN-2 voice recorder system installed to log the pilot’s visual observations and any audio signals from hostile ground radars. When heavy defences, particularly those that Voodoo pilots would have encountered in Europe, made photo-reconnaissance too hazardous, a timely verbal report could be valuable in assessing a tactical situation on the ground. The jet was also fitted with a useful APN-102/ ASN-7 Doppler/Dead Reckoning navigation unit.

The first pair of RF-101s to fly over Cuba had attracted AAA fire, and some MiG opposition was also encountered as flights over the Il-28 base were made on Nov. 5, although no interceptions were attempted. Pilots photographed up to eight targets on missions involving six RF-101Cs. On Nov. 15, while assembly work on the Il-28s still continued, Cuban leader President Fidel Castro said he would shoot down any further reconnaissance flights. The belief that the SA-2’s ‘Fan Song-C’ guidance radars could apparently track targets at 200 ft and 800 knots made this a credible threat, so RF-101 flights were suspended and the monitoring task reverted back to the U-2-equipped 4080th Strategic Reconnaissance Wing.

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RF-101 Voodoo Units in Combat is published by Osprey Publishing and is available to order here.

Photo credit: U.S. Air Force

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