5 Of The Most Dangerous Spy Plane Missions In US Military History

Mandatory Fun

Since the United States entered World War II, the Department of Defense has engaged in the systematic surveillance of other nations by air to glean valuable intelligence on weapons capabilities and military movements. These missions are quite dangerous and often ended in disaster, but the risks endured by these aircrews aboard the Pentagon's beloved spy planes are often overlooked due to the sensitive nature of their assignments.

Here are five instances from the past that illustrate why these pilots were not flying the friendly skies.

1. A tense shoot-down over the Baltic Sea

A U.S. Navy Consolidated PB4Y-2S Privateer (BuNo 66304) of Patrol Squadron VP-23, circa 1949-1953. This aircraft is today on display at the National Museum of Naval Aviation, Pensacola, Florida (USA).Wiki Commons

As the Iron Curtain descended across Europe, the United States was desperately trying to gather intelligence on Soviet activities across the continent. On April 8th, 1950, a PB4Y-2 Privateer — a modified B-24 Liberator fitted with electronic gear for signals intelligence — left West Germany for the Baltic Sea to gather intel on Soviet naval forces and possibly to monitor early naval missile tests.

The aircraft was intercepted by four Soviet La-11 “Fang” fighters over the Baltic Sea off of the coast of Latvia. According to documentary filmmaker Dirk Pohlmann, the entire sequence of events was pre-planned by the Soviets to attempt to capture the aircraft and crew, or at least shoot the aircraft down if it could not be captured. The aircraft was shot down over the Baltic; none of the ten crewmembers were recovered.

2. A SIGINT mission goes off-course in Armenia

Airmen from the 455th Expeditionary Aircraft Maintenance Squadron perform maintenance on an EC-130H Compass Call Feb. 2, 2018 at Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan. The EC-130H Compass Call is an airborne tactical weapon system using a heavily modified version of the C-130H designed to disrupt enemy command and control communications and limits adversary coordination essential for enemy force management.Dept Of Defense

In September 1958, a modified C-130A was shot down over Armenia during signals gathering mission in support of the Armed Forces Security Agency, the predecessor to the modern-day National Security Agency. The C-130 had taken off from Turkey, and the flight plan kept the aircraft on the Turkish side of the border with Armenia; however the C-130 strayed across the border and was promptly intercepted by several Soviet MiG-17 Frescos.

Like most Cold War shootdowns over (or near) Soviet-controlled territory, there exists a vacuum of information on what exactly happened. The Soviets initially claimed that the plane had crashed in Armenia, but later records revealed gun camera footage of a MiG-17 shooting down the C-130, as well as an unearthed 1958 Soviet report detailing the shootdown and recovery operations. None of the 17 crew on board survived.

3. The cold arctic becomes a firestorm in Murmansk

A USAF RB-47 flies over Nevada.NNSA

One of the lesser-known Cold War incidents involved an Air Force RB-47 shootdown on a reconnaissance mission off of the northern coast of Russia. Shortly after reaching the Murmansk area, Soviet fighters were scrambled to intercept the aircraft with fatal results: Four of the six crewmen died, and the two surviving crewmen that survived were fished out of the frigid ocean and interrogated in Moscow before their eventual release in January 1961.

The Soviets maintained that the aircraft violated its airspace; however, Oleg Penkovskiy, a spy for the United States, claimed other otherwise., “The U.S. aircraft RB-47 shot down on Khrushchev’s order was not flying over Soviet Territory; it was flying over neutral waters." When the facts of the shootdown were reported to Khrushchev, he said: “Well done boys, keep them from even flying close.”

Despite the tragic incident, U.S. SIGNIT missions kept flying closer and closer, flying hundreds of near border surveillance flights over the course of the cold war.

4. The final flight of DeepSea 129

VAQ-33 (GD 12) NC-121K (BuNo 141292) on it's last flight to Davis-Monthan AFB for retirement in April 1982. This was the last "Connie" to serve the Navy.Photo by Robert Lawson USN / Public Domain

After the Korean War, the North Korean government continued to harass and attack ROK and U.S. forces across the peninsula, including the infamous U.S.S. Pueblo incident, where the U.S.S. Pueblo was captured by North Korean forces while operating in international waters.

But overshadowed by the Pueblo affair is is the shootdown of an EC-121 Warning Star (callsign DeepSea 129) over the Sea of Japan on April 15th, 1969.  While performing their SIGINT mission off the coast of North Korea, two North Korea MiG-21 Fishbeds were scrambled on a heading towards the EC-121.

U.S. forces tracked the MiG-21’s, however even with warning, there was nothing that could have been feasibly done to help the doomed Warning Star. Two Delta Dart interceptors were scrambled, but it was too late, as the EC-121 was destroyed by the North Korean MiGs.

5. A collision course with China; Hainan Island

A Navy P-3 Orion patrol aircraft taxis in from a landing Aug. 2, 2017, at Fairchild Air Force Base, Washington. The Orion is a four-turboprop engine, anti-submarine and maritime surveillance aircraft developed for the Navy and introduced in 1962.Dept of Defense

One of the most well-known spy plane encounters happened in the perpetually-contentious South China Sea. A Chinese pilot in a J-8 Finback fighter aircraft, previously known by the U.S. Navy due to his overly aggressive flying style, lost control over his aircraft while intercepting an EP-3 Orion on a SIGINT mission near Hainan Island. The J-8 pilot was killed, and the crippled EP-3 was forced to land on Chinese territory.

After attempting to destroy as much of their equipment as possible, the crew surrendered to Chinese authorities and became pawns in a political chess match over the incident. After ten days of political wrangling between the Chinese and U.S. governments, the crew was released unharmed.

A enlisted thinktank brought to you by Task & Purpose


In a move that could see President Donald Trump set foot on North Korean soil again, Kim Jong Un has invited the U.S. leader to Pyongyang, a South Korean newspaper reported Monday, as the North's Foreign Ministry said it expected stalled nuclear talks to resume "in a few weeks."

A letter from Kim, the second Trump received from the North Korean leader last month, was passed to the U.S. president during the third week of August and came ahead of the North's launch of short-range projectiles on Sept. 10, the South's Joongang Ilbo newspaper reported, citing multiple people familiar with the matter.

In the letter, Kim expressed his willingness to meet the U.S. leader for another summit — a stance that echoed Trump's own remarks just days earlier.

Read More Show Less

Editor's Note: This article by Oriana Pawlyk originally appeared on Military.com, a leading source of news for the military and veteran community.

On April 14, 2018, two B-1B Lancer bombers fired off payloads of Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missiles against weapons storage plants in western Syria, part of a shock-and-awe response to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's use of chemical weapons against his citizens that also included strikes from Navy destroyers and submarines.

In all, the two bombers fired 19 JASSMs, successfully eliminating their targets. But the moment would ultimately be one of the last — and certainly most publicized — strategic strikes for the aircraft before operations began to wind down for the entire fleet.

A few months after the Syria strike, Air Force Global Strike Command commander Gen. Tim Ray called the bombers back home. Ray had crunched the data, and determined the non-nuclear B-1 was pushing its capabilities limit. Between 2006 and 2016, the B-1 was the sole bomber tasked continuously in the Middle East. The assignment was spread over three Lancer squadrons that spent one year at home, then six month deployed — back and forth for a decade.

The constant deployments broke the B-1 fleet. It's no longer a question of if, but when the Air Force and Congress will send the aircraft to the Boneyard. But Air Force officials are still arguing the B-1 has value to offer, especially since it's all the service really has until newer bombers hit the flight line in the mid-2020s.

Read More Show Less

Editor's Note: The following story highlights a veteran at Verizon committed to including talented members of the military community in its workplace. Verizon is a client of Hirepurpose, a Task & Purpose sister company. Learn More.

Verizon values leadership, motivation, self-discipline, and hard work — all characteristics that veterans bring to the table. Sometimes, however, veterans struggle with the transition back into the civilian workplace. They may need guidance on interview skills and resume writing, for example.

By participating in the Hiring Our Heroes Corporate Fellowship Program and developing internal programs to help veterans find their place, Verizon continues its support of the military community and produces exceptional leaders.

Read More Show Less

CAIRO (Reuters) - Islamic State's media network on Monday issued an audio message purporting to come from its leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi saying operations were taking place daily and urging freedom for women jailed in Iraq and Syria over their alleged links to the group.

"Daily operations are underway on different fronts," he said in the 30-minute tape published by the Al Furqan network, in what would be his first message since April. He cited several regions such as Mali and the Levant but gave no dates.

Read More Show Less
(DoD photo)

A U.S. service member was killed in Afghanistan on Monday, defense officials have announced.

Read More Show Less