The U.S. Air Force has awarded Air Medals to four Swedish air force pilots in recognition of their decisive actions during a once-classified encounter with a crippled SR-71 Blackbird during the waning years of the Cold War.
On June 19, 1987, the Blackbird experienced a sudden engine failure while flying a reconnaisance mission in international waters over the Baltic Sea, crippling the sophisticated supersonic aircraft in an area with a history of U.S. spyplane shootdowns throughout the Cold War.
Upon descending into Swedish airspace, the imperiled Blackbird was intercepted by two pairs of Swedish air force Viggen single-seat fighter aircraft, which "assessed the emergency situation and decided to render support to the aircraft by defending it from any potential third-party aircraft that might have tried to threaten it," according to U.S. Air Forces in Europe and Air Forces Africa.
The Viggen pilots provided a much-needed escort to the Blackbird as it hobbled back to safe territory on a single engine. According to USAFE-AFAFRICA, the details of the incident were classified until last year.
“We were performing an ordinary peace time operation exercise,” retired Maj. Roger Moller, one of the Viggen pilots who aided the aircraft, recalled during the ceremony. “Our fighter controller then asked me are you able to make an interception and identification of a certain interest. I thought immediately it must be an SR-71, otherwise he would have mentioned it. But at that time I didn’t know it was the Blackbird.”
U.S. Air Force Maj. Gen. John Williams, mobilization assistant to the commander of USAFE-AFAFRICA, presented the Air Medals to Swedish air force Col. Lars-Eric Blad, Majs. Roger Moller and Krister Sjoberg, and Lt. Bo Ignell during a ceremony on Nov. 28 in Stockholm, Sweden.
“Your obvious skills and judgement were definitely demonstrated on that faithful day many years ago. I want to thank you for your actions on that day,” said retired Lt. Cols. Duane Noll, who was piloting the SR-71 at the time, in a pre-recorded message played during the ceremony. “We will never know what would or could have happened, but because of you, there was no international incident. The U.S. Air Force did not lose an irreplaceable aircraft, and two crew members’ lives were saved."
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