Cuban Missile Crisis
The movie "Thirteen Days" explains just how threatened the Unites States was with nuclear war during the fall of 1962. Most Americans know very little about this impending danger that could have destroyed a major portion of our population. The movie explains the political predicament very well but only skims over the military function that I, and many others endured not only for "Thirteen Days" but for more than thirteen months. As indicated in the movie the powers that be in Washington almost lost control of the situation several times during the "Thirteen Days." Thank God a peaceful agreement was achieved.
Retired Rear Admiral Paul Gillcrist represented the Navy and the pilots very well as the military adviser for the "Thirteen Days." He was my boss in Fighter Squadron 62. We flew many missions together in and around Cuba during those uncertain days. There were also several aircraft lost and pilots killed during this operation that was not contributed to hostile activity. The movie only noted the loss of one aircraft and one pilot who was brought down by a Surface to Air Missile (SAM).
Our Air Group was placed on alert during the first week of October 1962. We were briefed about the missile build up and to be ready to strike our assigned targets in Cuba at a moments notice. The entire Air Group (about 80 aircraft) would hit selected targets and destroy the SAM sites when the orders were given. All pilots were restricted to the base at NAS Cecil Field, FL and could not tell family members when they would be home or why they were being retained on base. We could only view pictures of our assigned target, in a dark room, with our Top Secret clearance in hand. It was interesting to note that these same pictures were published in "Time" and "Newsweek" magazines the very next week.
After a few days into the missile crisis we were deployed to Key West Naval Air Station with our F-8 Crusaders fighter aircraft for alert duty. This placed us only 90 miles from the Island of Cuba. That was only about 9 minutes away in the supersonic Crusader. We were scrambled many times when MIGs got airborne in the little Island to the south. The Ground Control Intercept (GCI) site was very good at supplying our pilots with the MIG’s heading, altitude and speed. If the MIG headed north, or toward an American surveillance aircraft we would be vectored in for the intercept at the ‘speed of heat.’ Somehow the MIG pilots knew when we were in hot pursuit of them and they headed back to Cuba as fast as possible. We never got a shot at a MIG although we chased many away from the Fleet. We were like a big brother coming to the aid of the surveillance aircraft. If some MIG harassed them we took over the fight since they had no weapons to defend themselves. Many times we would be skirting the 3-mile limit off the cost of Cuba. That limit was later changed to12-miles from the shoreline.
Our signal to scramble was when the Red Alert Phone rang in our Ready Room. The two duty fighter pilots, in full flight gear, would run fast as they could to the flight line. We were on the second deck of a big hangar, which was about 100 yards from the armed airplanes. At the first tingle of the Red Alert Phone we were off and running too the flight line. At the same time the line personnel were notified of the alert, the plane captain would have the airplane engine started by the time the pilot arrived. We only took time to fasten the two upper fittings on the torso harness, close the canopy, and head for the runway. Needless to say many pieces of support gear were blown over by jet blast from our high power settings while taxing.
The tower would clear us for take-off with a green light. By the time we got airborne our radios were warmed up and we could hear the vector commands coming from the GCI site. Of course we were breathing so hard from the 100-yard dash that our initial communications were sometimes garbled.
A humorous event took place during one alert when LCDR Paul Gillcrist and I were scrambled. Paul had just taken a bite out of a big donut, which was covered with powdered sugar, when the Red Alert Phone rang. Paul ran out the Ready Room with the donut in his mouth. He was about 2 paces in front of me and was unaware that an Admiral was about to turn the corner in the passage. He and the Admiral hit head-on. As I passed the bodies tumbling on the floor I noticed the white power coming out of Paul’s mouth. He looked like a dragon puffing white smoke. I ran to the airplane, got airborne, and was laughing so hard I could hardly talk to the controllers. Sure enough there was a pair of MIG-17’s making passes at an Air Force C-121 (AWEPS)aircraft just off the cost of Cuba. The MIG’s departed just before my arrival. The Air Force brothers were sure glad to see me on their wing.
USAF EC-121 Low Level off Havana, Cuba
If I recall correctly the record time for getting airborne, after the Red Alert Phone rang, was less than two minutes? An Air Force fighter squadron was stationed in portable buildings next to the flight line and we would easily beat them in the air.
The following report was written by Jim Brady, who was one of our outstanding pilots, about a very crucial and hostile mission he was on.
LT Howie (Kickstand) Bullman and LTJG Jim (Diamond) Brady of Fighter Squadron 62 were on 5 minute alert duty at Boca Chica NAS in Key West, Florida. The purpose of this "hot" alert was to provide cover and protection for our surveillance aircraft that were photographing Russian ships bringing medium and short-range nuclear tipped missiles into Cuba.
On the day in question, LT Bullman and LTJG Brady were scrambled to intercept two MIG-17’s that were making gun passes on several P-2V’s and P-3V’s that were patrolling the Florida Straits. These Navy aircraft were taking low altitude photos of the decks of Russian ships carrying numerous missiles into Cuban ports for placement all over Cuba.
The Cuban Missile Crisis was, without doubt, the seminal point of the Cold War in that there was never a time when the two nuclear powers stood more sternly eye to eye with the potential for nuclear war as the result. The movie "Thirteen Days" in recent years clearly depicted the level of tension that existed between the antagonists during this period.
LT Bullman and LTJG Brady were airborne in two and one half minutes from the sounding of the alarm claxon (the RED ALERT PHONE). They made a section takeoff in afterburner and accelerated and climbed rapidly to twenty five thousand feet, where they continued to accelerate to supersonic speed while taking vectors from "BrownStone," the ground control radar station which was charged with the task of guiding such intercepts over the Florida Straits.
About 63 miles from Key West and perhaps six minutes from take off, both LT Bullman and Brady contacted the two MIG-17’s their via there APG-94 radar systems. "BrownStone" confirmed the targets and LT Bullman acknowledged taking over the intercept by calling "Judy" which was the code word for assuming control over the intercept in the cockpit.
The MIG-17’s never saw LT Bullman, or LTJG Brady as they slid in behind and slightly below the rapidly departing MIG’s as they headed south toward Santa Clara, Cuba. With their Sidewinders growling in their headsets, indicating an infrared lock on the tail pipes of the MIG’s LT Bullman requested permission to attack by firing their missiles. There was what seemed like an interminable silence from "BrownStone." Actually, the delay in responding was probably less than 20 seconds.
2 MIG-17s Escape to Santa Clara as F-8s are Ordered to "Break Off!"
There command was to, "Break off the intercept and return to base." LT Bullman acknowledged the command and the section of F8’s headed back to Key West. Many hours were spent in debriefing the pilots by a host of military and civilian officials.
Post Script: It was many years before both pilots came to understand why the attack had been called off. Negotiations between the White House and the Kremlin had reached a critical stage and the destruction of two Russian built and, probably, Russian flown aircraft would have, perhaps, led to the outbreak of hostilities between the Nations. No one can ever know for sure what would have happened had LT Bullman not requested instructions from "BrownStone." The rules of engagement in place at the time would have allowed the two F8 pilots to fire on any aircraft engaged in a hostile or threatening act against any elements of the Armed Forces of the United States. LT Bullman, through his cool headed handling of the situation, may have prevented a chain of events from unfolding that could have been extremely unfortunate for both Nations. (Jim Brady 5/2005)
After many weeks at Key West our squadron deployed on board the USS Lexington (CVA 16) for Combat Air Patrol. Our primary mission at time was for air superiority in case a MIG harassed the Photo Aircraft taking brownie pictures of Cuba. These Photo Birds continued the surveillance flights for months after the so-called "Thirteen Days" passed.
My squadron also flew CAP (Combat Air Patrol) from Guantanamo Bay, Cuba (GITMO) for many weeks. Again our mission was to be on station, usually above 40,000 feet orbiting just off the south coast of Cuba. We were there ready for action in case a MIG made a run on one of our surveillance aircraft that was flying across Cuba. There were two air fields at GITMO at that time, Leeward Point which was 8000 feet long and McCalla Field, east of the bay, which was only 3500 feet long. The "powers that be" decided that the long runway at Leeward Point needed to be re-surfaced during this time of threat. This left McCalla Field as the only operating airport at GITMO. This 3500 foot runway was the only one available for take-offs and landings.
A fully loaded F-8, in afterburner, could get airborne in less than 3000 feet even on a hot day. But the same airplane required almost 8000 feet to stop on a dry runway. The problem was solved by installing arresting gear mid-way down the runway to trap our fast flying fighters on landing. The same tailhook that caught the cable for ship board landing was used to arrest the airplane on the short field. It worked and was fun. But if you got a hook skip, or missed the wire, you had to immediately go to full power in order to keep from becoming a big jet ski off the end of the runway.
Normally, there were two aircraft returning from each mission. Both planes had to make an arrested landing. It took about 90 seconds to re-set the arresting gear after the first fighter landed before the second fighter could land. We had to somehow delay the second plane from landing by at least 90 seconds. We could not fly but a few hundred yards north of the airport because of the border between the good guys and the bad guys. The bad guys had Anti-Aircraft weapons trained in our direction and we did not want to give them an excuse to use them.
Of course we could have separated prior to reaching the field and delayed the second fighter from entering that sacred airspace for a couple of minutes. But this is not the way a fighter pilot thinks. He wants to be joined on his leader’s wing in tight formation, at the speed of heat, all the way to break. The problem was simple to solve with fighter pilot logic. As the first fighter pitched out for landing the second airplane would automatically pull up into a vertical loop. That stopped his forward motion and gave the ground crew the extra time needed for the arresting gear to be re-set. More importantly it allowed the pilot to demonstrate his real ‘Tiger’ spirit. His overhead loop should end where it started, if executed properly, and he would then pitch-out for landing. We got by with this procedure by telling the "many-motor" pilots in charge of base flight operations that was our only option. Those were the days when we thought, "Having multi-engine time in your log book would be worse than having ‘VD’ in your health record." The many-motor, station safety officer, thought we were a wild bunch.
When we first arrived at McCalla Field the station Commanding Officer welcomed our squadron on board. He asked us to make low passes over the base housing area, when taking off, so the dependents would know that the fighters have arrived. "During this tense time your presence would give the civilians an added since of security," he said. That was authorization a fighter pilot loved to hear. We obeyed his worthy request by making a hard right turn on take-off heading for the dependent quarters. We were so low that I am sure some of the shingles were blown off their roofs. And with F-8 afterburner blazing they were pounded with mega decibels. These stunts had to be frightful to say the least. Our fun only lasted one day. The Commanding Officer came back the next day and said, "They know you are here! You guys are shocking them more than the Cuban threat. Knock it off!" We did!
At the end of this 3500’ runway was a steep drop-off. It was about 50 feet straight down to the bay where a squadron of P-5M’s and other Navy float planes were moored. They had this little secluded cove all too themselves like a flock of contented ducks along the sandy beach. Needless to say we had to get their attention as well. On take-off we would suck up the landing gear, drop down to their altitude, and rake their place of peace with the deafening noise of the F-8. In just a couple of days they moved all aircraft far away from our area. As the old saying goes, "Here comes the fighter pilots, lock up the women and kids."
Other interesting aspects of flying out of GITMO were the threat the pilots faced in case they had to eject near the runway. Hundreds of sharks could be seen swimming in the bay, at both ends of the runway, where garbage was dumped by the natives. Therefore, a water landing was not a good decision. The Marines had land mines placed in the ground all around the perimeter of the base and stationed their big K-9 watch dogs throughout the property. Landing on an explosive mine or in the mouth of a German Shepard was not the leisure place one would expect in the picturesque Caribbean. Per-chance the pilot landed across the fence in mainland Cuba, just a few hundred yards from the end of the runway; he would become a prisoner of Cuba. Our resolve was not to eject in this area. If all else failed we would go out to sea and to make a nylon descent (parachute).
The Red Alert Phone rang. I was duty fighter pilot. I ran to my airplane and mounted up like a professional fighter pilot heading out to war, or so I thought. In my excitement I turned the corner too quickly and this caused the right main tire to blow out. The airplane was flopping down the runway like driving over a plowed field. A blown tire was not about to stop me. I had to go. The Red Alert Phone was not to be ignored.
The airplane had enough thrust to get airborne with a blown tire. But my directional control was out of hand. She was heading for the ditch on the right side of the runway as I was quickly accelerating. Going off the runway could have ruined my whole day. So in order to have symmetrical control of the airplane, and too correct the extreme right drift, I just locked the left brake and blew that tire as well. My directional problem was solved, but the ride was terrible. In a few seconds I was airborne looking for my bogie. Flat tires were the least of my concerns. I learned long ago that an airplane is no good on earth.
The tower was screaming, "You blew a tire on take-off!" I said, "No I blew two tires on take-off and I am switching frequencies to Combat Control." When I called the controller I said, "This is Silverstep 209 where is my target?" They said, "Your target is flying around the east end of the Island at 2000 feet and 160 KTS, vector 095 degrees for join-up." I thought, "Did I hear join-up at 2000 feet and 160 KTS?" I said, "Say again," with a lot of uncertainty in my voice. The controller repeated what he had said but added a little more information during this transmission. He said, "Your target is a Navy R4D (DC-6) carrying a group of Congressmen from Washington. They want to take pictures of a Fighter flying wing on them in this hostile area." I said to myself, "What?" Here I almost destroyed a beautiful fighter, and possibly myself, just so a group of Congressmen could go back to Washington with pictures of a Navy fighter flying escort on them. I made sure they got some good close-ups as I almost put my wing tip in their face. The R4D pilot was a little nervous to say the least. Here I was airborne, armed for a kill, with two live sidewinder missiles, and 1100 rounds of hot 20 MM ammunition on board and my mission was no more than a Photo Op. Dumb!
I flew with the politicians for a few minutes then headed back to McCalla Field for landing. When I called the tower, for landing instructions, the tower operator said, "Silverstep 209 stand-by one!" In a moment a very stern and authoritative voice from the tower radio penetrated my helmet with the following. "Silverstep 209 this is the Safety Officer speaking. You will not be allowed to land at this airport because you have a blown tire." I said, "McCalla Tower I have two blown tires. I can easily make an arrested landing with no danger to me or my airplane." He said, "Sliverstep 209 your airplane is fully armed and could blow up on landing." I thought to myself, "I know why this senseless pilot is stationed at this remote place. He is out of touch with reality." He said, "The USS Lexington is just a few miles south. You will have to fly there and make an arrested landing on that carrier. You will not be allowed to land on my airport with blown tires and live ammo."
I switched over to the USS Lexington’s radio frequency, told them of my problems and requested permission to land on their ship. I had flown on and off that boat many times and was well qualified to land there on. The Air Boss of the ship said, "Silverstep 209 stand-by one!" I thought, "Here we go again!" In a moment the Air Boss called and asked me if my plane had made an arrested landing at McCalla Field in the past few days. Of course it had and I said, "Yes Sir." He said, "In that case Silverstep 209 you will not be allowed to land on this carrier." I said, "Why not?" He replied, "There is a regulation that requires the tailhook too be inspected after landing on a concrete runway before it can make an arrested landing on a ship." He continued to say, "It is possible that the tailhook point may be hardened after such a landing on concrete and could possibly break upon landing on his ship."
I said, "Sir, they won’t let me land at the airbase and you won’t let me land on the ship. I am too low on fuel to go to another airport what do you recommend?" He said, Silverstep 209 stand-by one!" By then my oxygen mask was percolating with cold sweat like a cheap coffee pot boiling over. Finally he came back on the air and said, "Silverstep 209 this is the Air Boss speaking." I said, "Yes sir, go ahead, I hear you loud and clear." He said, "I had worked out an agreement with the tower controller at McCalla Field. You can make an arrested landing there, but first you must expend all ammunition and dump fuel down to the absolute minimum." I said, "WILCO SIR," which means I understand and will comply with his command. "Piece of cake," I thought. Now I have a place to roost this crippled bird.
LT John (Pirate) Nichols was returning to McCalla Field from CAP station and heard our conversation. He joined on my wing and flew safety observer while I fired 1100 rounds of 20 MM ammunition and two live sidewinder missiles into the ocean. I then dumped fuel down to the minimum and headed for the airport. John checked my landing gear to make sure the blown tires had not damaged other systems in the wheel wells. He landed ahead of me in case my landing might cause the field to be closed for a while if things went wrong. My landing was a normal Navy arrested landing that stopped my plane in just a few hundred feet. After stopping I noticed hundreds of people lined up on both sides of the runway to see this pilot and airplane go up in flames. I thought, "They must have sold tickets for this event." Well, I disappointed them and lived happily ever after, most of the times.
A few days later Lt. Dick Oliver and I were flying CAP at 45,000’ when two additional fighters relieved us on station. After flying the race tract pattern for almost two hours we were ready for a little rest and relaxation. We started descending rapidly and accelerated beyond the speed of sound in a very short time as we were heading for McCalla Field. It was always fun to let the Crusader do what it was designed for and that was to fly very fast. In fact the Crusader was the first airplane that was able to exceed 1000 MPH. We were smoking through the air at the speed of heat when all of a sudden Lt. Oliver’s aircraft slowed down very fast. I was not expecting his rapid deceleration and slid past him quickly. Lt. Oliver was a very smooth pilot and would never try to throw his wingman out of position like that. Something had to be wrong with his airplane. I heard a muffled transmission but could not determine what it was or where it was coming from. I pulled almost straight up to stop my forward motion in order to get back in position on my leaders wing. I observed him several thousand feet below flying very slow. In fact he had his airplane configured for landing, with gear down, wing up, and we were still about 75 miles from the airport. I had to perform all kind of ‘S’ turns to get back in position. All the while I was calling him on my radio but was only getting garble transmissions in return. As I was joining on his starboard wing I noticed that his canopy was gone. Wow! That explained his rapid deceleration and the muffled transmissions I had heard.
Losing a canopy at any altitude and airspeed can be a freighting experience. A canopy loss at 35,000’ and at 1.2 Mach is very dangerous for many reasons. It is highly likely that the pilot can be ejected from the airplane without notice. This is due to the fact that the Martin Baker ejection seat is designed to fire, or eject, when the face curtain is pulled out of its holder. The purpose of the face curtain is to two fold. It is attached to the armed ejection pin by a cable and is actually the trigger that fires the seat. It also helps protect the pilot’s face from the sudden wind blast during ejection.
As I looked at Lt. Oliver’s airplane I noticed that his face curtain was flapping in the wind. That meant his ejection seat could fire at any moment. All that was needed was another half inch of travel and he would have been shot out of the airplane. After we slowed down our transmissions were easier to understand. I told him what I observed and the possibility of an unexpected ejection. We had no choice but to continue to the airport, not knowing what might happen. The other major consideration was the fact that he would have to make an arrested landing at the short field as noted above. In an arrested landing the airplane decelerates very rapidly. If we made it to the airport without the seat firing there was a good possibility that the seat may fire during the sudden stop when catching the arresting cable. These older F-8’s did not have ground level and zero airspeed capability of saving a pilot. As I recall we had to have at least flying speed for the parachute to completely deploy. Our concern was if the seat fired at the time of the arrested landing the pilot probably would not survive. Needless to say the remainder of that flight was very tense. It sure would have been nice to have an 8000’ runway near-by.
We continued on to McCalla Field. The tower was notified and all the emergency equipment was standing by for our arrival. In fact the tower wanted me to land first in case the seat did fire causing the airport to be closed. After I made my arrested landing and was taxing to the flight line I observed Lt. Oliver catching the wire, coming to a rapid stop, and climbing out of his airplane as quick as possible. We noticed after landing that this canopy had not separated from the airplane as we thought. The canopy frame was still locked and attached. The problem was the glass in the canopy had broken. Of course the results were the same, except they could not fault the pilot for not properly locking his canopy.
These are just a few of the good, the bad and the ugly times we experienced during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Such events were not out of the ordinary when operating high performance aircraft from land or sea. There are many similar stories from those who flew missions in all branches of the military in all types of airplane or helicopters. When you’re operating at the EDGE the normal can become abnormal instantly. We all required a lot of professional attention and help from the Almighty to survive.
I can honestly say that my military comrades are some of the most respected folks that I have ever had dealing with. We worked together as a team, no matter the rank or rate. We had a mission to perform and we did. I honor those who gave all for their country no matter when or where.
I recorded these accounts for my children and my children’s children. I would encourage all to take the time to jot down some events of your past that can be passed on to others. I have noted in my ‘remembering’ that a part of me is awakened and the review is a tonic for my soul. You were there. You did it. And as Dizzy Dean said, "If you can do it, it ain’t bragging!" God bless, Ron Knott.
Oh! I've slipped through the swirling clouds on high,
thousands of feet up in the sky,
Well above the rainbows and where the bluebirds fly.
‘Sader’ and me on our mission, the enemy to defy.
Slipping along at the ‘speed of heat,’
Made this ‘fly boy’ feel kind of neat!
The ‘Sader,’ was the best in the Fleet,
No matter if you had ‘dry or wet feet.’
Yep, we flew over hill and dale,
Scared some poor farmers half way to hell.
"That was the Air Force," is the story we would tell,
This fable was not too hard to sell.
The ‘Sader’ was a challenge to the LSO,
He was quick to say, "A little power and don’t go low."
"WAVE OFF - WAVE OFF" with red lights aglow,
was our fate when we got too fast, or too slow.
Night carrier landings in the rough sea,
Scared the ‘H’ out of most pilots and me.
Like Michener said in the "Bridges of Toko-Ri"
"Where do they get men like this?"
I say duty, honor & country is the key.
Ron Knott 10/02
Just a little review of why and how the military can use Guantanamo Bay, Cuba (GITMO) for their operations. It was leased by the US Government in 1903, during the administration of President Teddy Roosevelt. The original agreement was reaffirmed by a treaty signed in 1934 by President Franklin Roosevelt. The treaty, still in effect today, gives the US perpetual lease on the land. Cuba has tried to break the lease many times but the US would not cancel the contract with them. One strange situation, especially during the Cuban Crises, was the fact the native Cubans work on the Naval Base as employees of the US government. They come in from main land Cuba each morning and go back through the security gate each evening. We always questioned the security of such an operation. GITMO is the oldest overseas Naval Base and the only one on communist soil.
Ron Knott (5/2005)
Any or all parts of this narrative may be reproduced. Ron Knott 5/2005