Before Navy aircrew's ordeal, Cold War casualties

Missions: United States turned a blind eye to pilots captured or killed in Soviet-era reconnaissance flights.

April 15, 2001|By William E. Burrows

The U.S. Navy EP-3 reconnaissance plane that was damaged and forced to land after a collision with a Chinese fighter jet this month was not a "spy" plane, as news accounts have said. To the contrary, it was on a mission so routine that countless others have been flown continually by Air Force and Navy aircraft since the dawn of the Cold War.

In fact, Air Force and Navy reconnaissance crews bridle at being called "spies" and point out that their aircraft are not only clearly marked "U.S. Air Force" or "U.S. Navy," but their whereabouts are always known to those they are reconnoitering. That, in fact, is one of their basic missions: to "ferret" radar by getting the opposition to turn it on so it can be recorded and analyzed and, if need be, jammed in case of war.

After 11 days of diplomatic wrangling, the 24 members of the plane's crew were released. The crew members were alive and uninjured -- the same cannot be said for 130 U.S. airmen who were shot down in at least 10 major incidents during the Cold War. Most of these incidents occurred along the periphery of the Soviet Union.

The shame of those fatal attacks on reconnaissance aircraft -- the first occurred over the Baltic Sea in 1950 and the last one was off North Korea in 1969 -- is that several Air Force and Navy fliers were captured and either killed on the spot or imprisoned. Their country turned its back on them to protect the secrecy of the missions and avoid appearing impotent.

The wives and other family members of missing Air Force and Navy reconnaissance crews were routinely sent telegrams telling them that their loved ones had been lost on a "routine training mission" over the Sea of Japan or elsewhere. It left the impression that the hapless airmen were too incompetent to survive even a routine training mission.

In reality, they were brave and highly competent fliers whose job was to conduct continuous peripheral reconnaissance missions in a program originally called the Peaceful Airborne Reconnaissance Program, or PARPRO, that ferreted radar and intercepted enemy communication traffic.

The vast majority of the flights, which had scores of code names like Rivet Joint and Ear Trumpet, even carried Russian-speaking linguists to warn of chatter between MiG pilots that could signal an attack.

In all likelihood, the Chinese F-8 pilot who hit the EP-3 was not showing off or acting whimsically. Most likely, he was trying to get the American patrol plane to turn toward the mainland, where it could be forced to land or be shot down, in either case "proving" that it had violated Chinese territory.

It was standard practice before each of the thousands of such missions for the briefing officer to tell the crew that it was in no circumstance to allow enemy fighters to turn its plane toward land. Then, as if polling a jury, the briefing officer would ask each crew member individually: "Do you understand what `under no circumstance' means?"

Sometimes the large reconnaissance planes, which sprouted antennas and a variety of bubbles and bulges that held specialized interception equipment, would slow down so much that the MiGs that trailed closely behind them would stall and fall away. Cat-and-mouse games, often with the opponents taking each other's pictures, occurred frequently.

But sometimes such games turned deadly. Starting with the attack in 1950, the Soviets openly sent explicit signals to U.S. intelligence that it intended to keep the reconnaissance planes away from its borders by using heavily armed fighter jets the same way some baseball pitchers use a "high-and-tight" fastball to keep opposing batters from crowding home plate.

Perhaps the most infamous incident occurred July 29, 1953, when an U.S. Air Force RB-50G Ferret was shot out of the sky in Vladivostok Bay.

Years later, after former Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin admitted that the former Soviet Union had held Americans prisoner during the Cold War, an air defense gunner in 1992 admitted seeing seven parachutes open after the plane was shot down. The crew of an Air Force SB-29 rescue plane, dispatched from Japan to search for survivors, reported seeing the Russians pulling Americans out of the water.

The Americans were swallowed up by the U.S.S.R. and no effort was made to win their repatriation.

Now that the Chinese have released the EP-3's crew, two things need to be borne in mind. First, the 24 American prisoners held on Hainan Island fared better than many of their predecessors. And second, airborne reconnaissance is imperative to understanding the capacity of this country's opponents -- and that very much includes Iraq and North Korea -- and will therefore continue.

Unnoticed by the news media is the fact that U.S. aircraft losses during the air wars against Iraq and Serbia were almost nonexistent, in large part because the enemy's radar had been quietly ferreted and then jammed. The credit for the successful attacks went to the fighter and bomber crews. The reconnaissance crews, as usual, worked in the shadows and were therefore not publicly acknowledged.

Maybe this incident will change that.

William E. Burrows is member of the journalism faculty at New York University and the author of "By Any Means Necessary," a book on air reconnaissance during the Cold War set to be published this year by Far rar, Straus and Giroux. This article was distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service.

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