In 1962, after unsuccessful attempts were made by U.S.-backed Cuban exiles to overthrow the Cuban government, Soviet Union leader Nikita Khrushchev made Cuba an offer they couldn’t resist – an agreement to defend against an attack initiated by the U.S. and place Soviet intermediate range ballistic missiles in Cuba, located a mere 90 miles from Miami, Fla.
Oct. 14, 1962; the United States’ worst fears became reality when a Lockheed U-2 high-altitude reconnaissance aircraft provided photographs confirming the presence of the IRBMs, which were secretly being installed.
According to Dr. Joseph Mason, Air Force Flight Test Center chief historian, the placement of Soviet IRBMs in Cuba was a strategic decision that allowed them to target anywhere in the United States, a capability that previously eluded them.
“Although there were military implications of the placement of Soviet missiles in Cuba, it was political and public perception that caused the most concern,” said Mason.
For 13 days during the Cuban Missile Crisis, the world held its breath as the Soviet Union and United States engaged in a dangerous game of brinkmanship, providing the world with a sobering reminder that nuclear war was a real and ever present threat.
Throughout the crisis, the U.S. military prepared for numerous contingency plans and prepared to react to escalating tensions at a moment’s notice. Edwards AFB was notified Oct. 22 that the national defense condition was raised to DEFCON 3 and war plans must be in place.
For protection measures, Strategic Air Command disbursed B-47 bombers throughout the United States, four of which landed at Edwards, along with support personnel.
In addition to supporting the SAC B-47 disbursement initiative, Edwards was called on to approach the Cuban Missile Crisis from a flight test standpoint.
According to Mason, F-104, F-16, and T-38 aircraft would fly over ground and missile test equipment at supersonic speeds, to determine whether the sonic booms might disable the electronics.
“The thought was that if supersonic overflights and the sonic booms would disable the missiles,” said Mason. “It would provide national command authorities a military response short of resorting to bombing that might trigger an escalation to nuclear war. Using non-kinetics to disable the missiles might achieve the same result. Unfortunately, the test results proved the idea would not work.”
Oct. 28, at the height of the tension between the Soviet Union and the United States, Edwards deployed 21 personnel to various locations throughout Florida as part of an impending invasion of Cuba.
Even as the U.S. government worked to defuse the situation, it moved forward with military action in the form of a naval quarantine to prevent Soviet military supplies from reaching Cuba.
While the United States prepared for potential military action, back at Edwards, a community fallout shelter was readied in case nuclear war broke out.
The shelter, located in the Borax Mine, approximately 12 miles from Edwards, was equipped with enough water, food and medical services for 17,000 people. Also in the fallout shelter was an emergency command post.
Fortunately, the United States and Soviet Union came to a secret resolution Oct. 28, 1962, to remove the missiles from Cuba, in exchange for the U.S. removing their missiles from Turkey. As a result, the fallout shelter, constructed by approximately 100 volunteer workers, never had to be used.
Looking back at the events leading up to and throughout the Cuban Missile Crisis, the U-2 high-altitude spy plane played a critical role in photographing the build-up of Soviet missiles in Cuba, affording the U.S. government the opportunity to effectively resolve the crisis.
“This was a very tense time in history,” said Peter Merlin, a contract historian at NASA Dryden Flight Research Center. “The U-2’s role was very significant because the cameras were able to get highly detailed photos and map surface to air missiles and identify Soviet ships.”
During the Cuban Missile Crisis, Maj. Rudolf Anderson tragically lost his life when the U-2 he was piloting was shot down. Two years earlier in 1960, while flying a reconnaissance mission for the Central Intelligence Agency, Francis Gary Powers was shot down by a missile over the Soviet Union.
These events publically exposed the vulnerabilities of the U-2 aircraft, reinforcing the importance of designing and producing the Lockheed A-12, which was intended to be the U-2’s replacement.
“The goal was to fly higher and faster,” said Merlin. “The CIA also wanted the airframe to be nearly invisible on radar. Clarence ‘Kelly’ Johnson and his crew essentially were designing stealth and anti-radar capabilities. Throughout the design process they could get a stealthy plane or a high and fast one. For a while, they could not get both together.”
The development of the titanium and composite A-12, capable of flying at heights of 90,000 feet and speeds in excess of Mach 3 eventually met the U.S. government requirement for stealth, altitude, and speed.
The official first flight of the A-12 took place April 26, 1962.
The A-12 led to the design and development of additional Blackbird aircraft such as the YF-12A Interceptor, A-12T Trainer, M-21 Mothership capable of launching the D-21 Drone, and the SR-71 reconnaissance aircraft.
To commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Cuban Missile Crisis and first flight of the A-12, Blackbird Airpark in Palmdale will hold an open-cockpit viewing event April 21 between 11 a.m. and 4 p.m. The event will provide visitors with an inside look at the spy planes and the opportunity to talk with U-2 and SR-71 pilots.
“This event is important because we shouldn’t forget our history and the sacrifices made along the way,” said Tony Moore, Air Force Flight Test Center Museum specialist. “Sometimes people don’t think of the Cold War as an actual war, but people were diligent 24/7. The reconnaissance missions of the U-2 and SR-71 and the intelligence gathered kept us from nuclear war. The information allowed us to make certain strategic decisions that influenced the outcome of events.”
At the open-cockpit event, a two-seater U-2D and SR-71 will be on display for visitors.
Blackbird Airpark is an auxiliary location of the AFFTC Museum, located at the intersection of 25th Street East and Avenue P in Palmdale, Calif. The airpark is open between 11 a.m. and 4 p.m. Friday through Sunday.
For more information about the open-cockpit viewing event at Blackbird Airpark, please contact the AFFTC Museum at (661) 277-8050.