Saturday, October 03, 2009

Silent Warriors

September 2, 1958. A four-engined C-130 transport aircraft from the US 7406th Support Squadron with tail number 60528 is flying along the Turkish-Soviet border. Six crew members and eleven US Airforce Security Service (USAFSS) personnel are on board.

The aircraft is flying in Turkish airspace, from Incirlik to Trabzon, and its mission is to gather intelligence by orbiting near the Soviet border. They are instructed to stay 100 miles from Soviet airspace. The crew reports passing over Trabson at an altitude of 25,500 feet and acknowledges a weather report.

Soviet air defense radars are tracking the C-130. At 1440 hours, four MiG-17 interceptors from the 25th Fighter Regiment's Yerevan base are scrambled and are heading toward the C-130. Suddenly, the C-130 mysteriously deviates from his route, turns east and crosses the border into Soviet Armenia. According to the Soviets, they entered their airspace at 1507 hours.

The first two Soviet interceptors arrive at 1508 hours and Senior Lieutenant Lopatkov fires several warning shots at 1509. The pilots of the C-130 start to maneuver and climb to an higher altitude. Meanwhile, the other two MiG arrive and the pilots request permission to engage the C-130. At 1511 hours, their Command gives permission to attack the C-130. All four MiGs attack the airplane in turn, using their cannon and rockets.

A C-130 at NSA, refurbished to resemble C-130A-II #60528

The camera of the third MiG captures the C-130 with its left outboard engine on fire and the fourth MiG pilot reports the C-130 breaking up before his attack. Seven minutes after the first attack, the C-130 crashes and explodes on impact, killing all seventeen crew members. It takes four days for the United States to confront the Soviets with the disappearing of their spy flight.

On September 12, Soviet authorities acknowledged that they found an aircraft that 'apparently crashed' on their territory. Five months later, the US goes public on a United Nations meeting and present tape recordings of intercepted conversations between the Soviet fighter pilots during the attack on the C-130. The Soviets continue to deny any involvement in the shootdown. The remains of the six crew members were returned. There was no word on the eleven USAFSS members that were aboard the C-130.

This wasn't the first nor the last. During the Cold War period, more than 40 reconnaissance aircraft were shot down. Flying these spy missions was a risky business and the reconnaissance programs were kept secret. The public never knew about these losses and their families and fellow soldiers were left to mourn alone.

The end of the Cold War allowed the US to release some information and pay tribute to these Cold War warriors. In 1991, Russian President Yeltsin began releasing information on the shoot down. In 1993, a US Army graves excavation team recovered an ID tag that belonged to a USAFSS technician aboard 60528.

On the National Security Agency (NSA) website, there's a special page on the C-130 Shootdown, with the story on aircraft 60528 and declassified documents with additional information. You can also listen to the actual recordings and read the transcripts of the intercepted radio traffic between the MiG pilots as they engage the C-130. A good moment to stand still for a moment and remember the soldiers, fallen in the silent war. It's all found on this page. The Aerial Reconnaissance memorial at the National Vigilance Park, near the NSA building, honors these silent warriors. NSA published A Dangerous Business about the U.S. Navy and National Reconnaissance during the Cold War and also released a quarterly titled The SIGINT on Thirteen Soviet Shootdowns.

There are several websites, dedicated to lost USAFSS crews. 6994th Security Squadron and Silent Warriors are two of them. A brief history of the USAFSS is found on this page. The EC-47 History Site is dedicated to the Douglas EC-47 electronic warfare platforms, sometimes referred to as "Electric Gooneys".

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