Seventy-fifth Chapter in a Series Chronicling the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962.
Because the events of the missile crisis are snowballing rapidly, and some of the events occur over this coming weekend 50 years ago, we must work ahead of those events in order not to fall hopelessly behind. Remember: the dates of each month in 1962 fell on exactly the same day of the week that they fall in 2012. October 14th in both years was a Sunday—this coming Sunday.
The CIA-to-SAC Transfer: October 13th, 1962
On October 13th, 50 years ago Saturday, the CIA’s U-2 aircraft were transferred to the Strategic Air Command. They were then flown from Edwards AFB in California to McCoy AFB in Orlando, Florida, where they would be much closer to Cuba. McCoy now became the principal U-2 operations base.
On the same day, the 55th Strategic Reconnaissance Wing (SRW), a part of SAC, transferred an unspecified number of RB-47s to MacDill AFB near Tampa and scheduled them to fly two ELINT–Weather reconnaissance missions a day around Cuba. Capt. Laubenthal writes that “ELINT specialists…processed the data and made a study of Cuban defense elements, matching the ELINT with the photography and determining the location of SAMs and radars.” The RB-47s transmitted weather information to SAC by radio.
The U-2 Mission of October 14th
The first U-2 mission to over-fly Cuba in six weeks had two goals, not just one.
- The more important goal was “up-front” if TOP SECRET: photographing the area to see if strategic missile bases were being built there.
- Though everyone knew about the other goal, it was not openly discussed. Heyeser’s U_2 would be probing the SAM sites around that trapezoidal area centered on San Cristobal in Pinar del Rio province in western Cuba. The trapezoidal area shows up clearly on the map of the October 14th U-2 mission attached to this chapter.
“Probing” an air defense missile site was simple and sometimes fatal. You flew your plane into range of the antiaircraft missile’s radars. If the tracking radars came on, you’d make a note of it. If the fire control radars locked onto you, you might not make it back.
If either of those radars did come on, NAS and SAC would be listening.
SAC was not a suicidal organization (neither was CIA where its U-2s and their pilots were concerned). The CIA map shows that the Air Force rerouted the mission of the 14th, ostensibly to avoid a SAM site just north of the now-famous trapezoidal area (marked by a star inside a circle)—though to my eye both tracks pass the same distance from that site.
The Mission Plan
Mission 3101 was flown by Air Force Major Richard Heyser. Takeoff from Edwards Air Base in California was set for 11:30 PM ET on October 13th. Heyser’s route would allow him to approach Cuba from the south and just west of the Isle of Pines. His northerly heading would take Heyser across the trapezoidal area just east of its center line.
Heyser was scheduled to enter Cuban air space at about 7:30 AM on Sunday, October14th, 1962, at an altitude of 72,500 feet. The SA-2 reportedly had good accuracy up to about 60,000 feet. Above that height, it was thought to be much less accurate.
Heyser’s U-2, one of the former CIA planes which had presumably acquired Air Force markings before the mission, had J-75 jet engines which were more powerful than the engines in the Air Force U-2s. Heyser’s U-2 may have been one of several CIA planes equipped with detection devices that would tell their pilots when they were being tracked by radar (yellow light) and, more alarmingly, when a fire control radar had locked onto them (steady red light).
Defensive Measures against the SA-2
None of the U-2s could jam “enemy” radars or eject metallic “chaff” to decoy incoming missiles away from the U-2. An aircraft’s only defense against an incoming SA-2 missile was to outrun it—impossible for the U-2 since it flew at under 500 knots and the SA-2 flew at Mach 3—or outmaneuver it—also impossible for the U-2. If a U-2 banked too tightly, one or both wings, which were bolted onto either side of the fuselage, could be torn off.
Mission 3101 went pretty much according to plan. As Heyser flew northwards across Pinar del Rio Province, on schedule, his U-2’s camera “panoramic lens” took pictures of an area below him roughly 100 nautical miles wide, according to Dino Brugioni. The U-2’s cameras and film were so good that analysts could see objects on the ground only two-and-a-half feet on a side.
Once Heyser cleared Cuba’s north coast, he altered course to starboard and flew toward his new home, McCoy Air Force Base in central Florida. He landed there at 9:20 AM ET.
The main film from Heyser’s mission was loaded aboard a waiting KC-135 tanker and flown to Andrews AFB near Washington. From there it was taken to the Naval Photographic Intelligence Center (NAVPIC) near Washington to be developed.
On Monday, the 15th, the developed film was taken to the CIA’s National Photographic Interpretation Center in Suitland, Maryland, for “exploitation” by the Agency’s photo analysts.
What the analysts discovered on that film made history—to be discussed in tomorrow’s chapter.
An Ironic Postscript
During the day on Sunday, October 14th, 1962, as the film from Heyser’s mission was being developed at NAVPIC, National Security Advisor McGeorge Bundy told a national television audience that all the military aid the Soviets had given Cuba so far was defensive. Bundy did admit that whether a weapon was offensive or defensive depended on whether you were aiming the weapon or it was aimed at you.
Bundy was in for a rude shock on Monday. So was the Kennedy administration and the intelligence community.
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Sources and Notes
The transfer of the CIA’s U-2s to McCoy AFB is described in Dino Brugioni’s Eyeball to Eyeball: The Inside Story of The Cuban Missile Crisis (Robert F. McCort, ed.). New York: Random House, 1991, p. 182.
The transfer of a detachment of RB-47s to MacDill ASFB is described in Sanders A. Laubenthal, Capt., USAF. “The Missiles in Cuba, 1962: The Role of SAC Intelligence.” SAC Intelligence Quarterly Project Warrior Study, May 1984. Formerly classified SECRET NOFORN. Declassified 27 October 1999, p. 32. I am grateful to Robb Hoover, historian of the 55th SRW, for a copy of Capt. Laubenthal’s report.
Both Brugioni and Laubenthal provide details of Major Heyser’s October 14th mission. Brugioni’s, beginning on p. 182 of Eyeball, provides the camera and film details cited above. Laubenthal’s, beginning on p. 19 of SAC Intelligence, naturally concentrates on the Air Force’s part in this story.
The map showing the CIA route that SAC rejected (solid line) and the route Major Heyser actually flew (dashed line) appears at the head of this chapter. It comes from the CIA maps of 1962 U-2 flights collected as document 1 in Mary McAuliffe, ed., CIA Documents on the Cuban Missile Crisis, 1962. Washington, D.C.: October 1992. The trapezoidal area first identified by a CIA agent in Cuba and analyzed by both CIA and DIA analysts appears very clearly on this map.
Details of how this mission’s film was handled appear in both Laubenthal and Brugioni.
Airborne devices that interfere with the enemy’s antiaircraft radars are called “ELECTRONIC COUNTER MEASURES,” or ECM.
Bundy’s October 14th television appearance is mentioned in James G. Blight, Bruce J. Allyn, and David A. Welch, Cuba on the Brink: Castro, the Missile Crisis, and the Soviet Collapse. Lanham, Maryland: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2002, p. 493. Bundy’s statements on ABC’s Issues and Answers are quoted in Michael R. Beschloss, The Crisis Years: Kennedy and Khrushchev, 1960-1963. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1991, p. 429. The Oct. 14 Boston Globe’s “Today on Television” column confirms that Bundy was scheduled to appear on Channel 2’s (ABC) Issues and Answers at 4 PM that afternoon.