October 25, 1962
Captain Jerry McIlmoyle sat in the cramped cockpit of his U-2 spy plane on the runway at McCoy Air Force Base in Orlando, Florida.
It was 10 a.m. and the sun was baking the tarmac, causing the 32-year-old pilot to sweat inside his skin-tight pressure suit and fish-bowl size helmet. Beads of perspiration were running from his tightly cropped hairline down his forehead and into his bright blue eyes. Another U-2 pilot performed one last equipment check, including the inspection of the hose running from the pressure suit to the oxygen supply that ran through the pilot’s emergency seat pack. This connection was of particular importance because Jerry would be flying at an altitude no other aircraft could reach; an incredible 13 miles above the earth. Should something go wrong, and the cockpit lose pressure, the flight suit would inflate, providing Jerry his last line of defense against the near vacuum of air of the stratosphere. Without a pressurized cockpit or a functioning pressure suit, Jerry’s blood would literally begin to boil, and death would soon follow.
Once the final flight check was completed and the canopy lid sealed, Jerry taxied toward the runway’s centerline. The wingspan on the super light aircraft was so long-- 103 feet-- pogo sticks kept each wing from nearly scraping the ground. Once at the centerline he engaged the brake and checked that the directional gyro read the same as the runway’s compass direction. He then ran the engine up to 80% of its maximum RPMs because anything higher would cause the aircraft to start sliding down the runway with its brake locked. Next he checked that all the systems were in good operating order, and then he released the brake, advanced the throttle to 100%, and barreled down the runaway, pogo sticks dropping away. When the airspeed indicator passed 70 knots he began pulling back on the yoke, and the plane became airborne as its speed hit 100 knots. The rumble of the landing gear on the runway faded away, and he raised the landing gear. He continued to pull on the yoke and began a 45 degree climb.
Airspeed had risen to 160 knots. Soon the plane could not be seen by the naked eye, its blue coloring the perfect camouflage against the sky. In just 30 minutes the young airman from McCook, Nebraska had climbed to 72,000 feet where he could clearly see the curvature of the earth. He had reached his cruising altitude and he eased back on the speed, carefully keeping it between 100 and 104 knots. Forty-five minutes later, he had entered the airspace over the island of Cuba.
Now, just east of the capital city of Havana, he maneuvered his plane into position for overflight of his first target. This Air Force pilot, however, wasn’t dropping bombs-- in fact his plane carried no weapons at all – instead, it was photos he was after, photos of Soviet military installations that included nuclear missiles capable of reaching and destroying cities throughout the United States.
The cockpit was quiet, and Jerry felt calm, even peaceful, despite having entered enemy airspace and knowing he was being tracked by Soviet radar. This was his third flight over the communist country in just the last few days, and all of his focus was on flying the aircraft, getting the photos, and returning home safely.
When Jerry identified landmarks he had been briefed about, such as a certain bay, peninsula or bridge, he knew he was fast approaching his target and he flicked the switch on the cockpit sensor control panel and activated the cameras. Once he was certain he photographed target number one, he altered course to the south-east and in approximately forty minutes arrived and filmed his second target. The mission was going as planned and the clear skies were holding over the 780 mile long island.
Sure is a beautiful place, Jerry thought, all those hills and lush green jungle. Then he considered what else was down there, and his image of nature’s beauty was marred by the thought. One more target to go, then I’m outta here.
The third and final objective was near the town of Banes, on the northeast coast of the island. When Jerry arrived, he had been over Cuba for approximately 1 hour and 15 minutes. Once over the target he started filming, got the photos he needed, shut the camera off and started to make his turn for home, thankful for a safe and successful run.
That’s when he saw them. Through his tiny rear view mirror two contrails stretched from the earth all the way toward his aircraft.
They’re firing at me!
One Surface to Air Missile (SAM) already had exploded above and behind him, sending fiery shrapnel in all directions causing streaks of white light against blue sky, a deadly starburst. The second missile exploded a mere second after Jerry first looked in his rear view mirror, this one causing an explosion perhaps 8,000 feet above the plane. The blast sent a burst of adrenaline coursing through the pilot’s body, even though he could not hear or feel the impact. His muscles clenched and his entire body felt as if it was getting smaller in the cockpit. This was a natural reaction – survival. But Jerry knew this was fruitless as he had no place to hide.
Is a third missile streaking up directly below - where I can’t see it?
He craned his neck around as best he could in the cumbersome helmet and flight suit, but did not see a third contrail. Then he made an instant decision. He banked the plane, and during the turn, flicked the cameras on – he wanted to get the contrails and starbursts on film. Despite the near miss of the missiles and the adrenaline, Jerry felt calm. It was a surreal experience to see the explosions meant to kill him but not hear or feel a thing. It was like sitting in the front row of the movie of your life. But this was all too real.
Got the pictures, he thought. Now let’s get the hell out of here.
He turned the aircraft once again for home and took a deep breath, relieved to be looking north toward a horizon where ocean met the sky. Less than two minutes had gone by since noticing the contrails.
On the flight home he replayed those intense moments again and again in his mind, still trying to come to grips with what had just happened.
Had I stayed over that last target just a second or two more, I wouldn’t be alive.
It was the initial turn toward home that saved his life. The SAMs were likely fired at a location ahead of the direction the U-2 was flying, where the Russian’s calculated the plane to be, but Jerry turned in the nick of time. Just one piece of shrapnel hitting the U-2 in the engine could have blown it to pieces. And even if the shrapnel missed the engine, a hit to just about any other area of the fragile plane would have crippled it, sending it tumbling thirteen miles down before smacking into to the Cuban earth.
Jerry wondered why his device for warning him that a missile was locked onto his aircraft never activated its red light as it should have. The device had adequately warned him more than once during the flight that the Soviets were painting him with radar, by displaying a yellow light in the cockpit. But the light never changed to red indicating an incoming missile. He tried to put himself in the enemy’s position.
Maybe they purposely didn’t use their guidance system so as not to warn me, and instead gambled they’d get me by simply calculating where we would intersect. I sure don’t want to do that again. It’s a miracle I’m alive.
He thought back to his years of arduous training, glad it helped him stay calm and have the presence of mind to get the contrails on film. Jerry had been in the Air Force since 1951, long enough to know that without the pictures some might doubt him, and he thought it imperative that the decision-makers, as well as his fellow pilots, understand the increased risk. McIlmoyle knew how important these black and white images would be as it had marked the first time during this growing conflict that any American airman had been fired upon.
A sense of calmness washed over Jerry as he saw the green landmass of Florida far in the distance. Despite the close call with the SAMs, his sense of relief that he cheated death was mixed with a feeling of serenity, a sensation he almost always experienced when he flying the U-2. In some ways the silence made him feel like he was the only person alive, and when he was cruising and not taking photos, he could be alone with his thoughts and felt closer to God.
There was a radio in the cockpit, but that could only be used in code, and only to alert friendly military aircraft of when he was entering and leaving Cuban airspace. At times Jerry felt more astronaut than pilot, sealed off from the earth below. Many pilots who entered the U-2 program washed out not just because of the myriad of dangers and challenges associated with flying in the stratosphere, but also because of the isolation they felt, particularly on long missions. These spy planes flew alone, never in squadrons, and secrecy was paramount.
Upon his landing at McCoy, members of the Physiological Support Team helped Jerry out of the cockpit and removed his helmet, welcoming him home. They then escorted him into an air conditioned van for the drive to the building where he would do his usual post-flight intelligence briefing. During the short ride, he closed his eyes and replayed the terrifying incident over and over in his mind. He wanted to make sure that he had every detail right.
Jerry stepped out of the van and was hit by a blast of hot air generated by the burning Florida sun. He began to sweat again. He entered the building and was shown into an office where several men from the American intelligence community were waiting for him. He was shown a chair and sat down but he could not get comfortable. Jerry knew that he was about to tell his superiors information they did not want to hear. But he also realized that the only way to say something was simply to come out and say it. He stared at the men in the room, took a deep breath and spoke.
“I was shot at over Cuba.”
The intelligence men stared hard at Jerry and then looked at each other. It was if they were having a telepathic conversation.
“Are you sure?” one of the men asked furrowing his brow.
“Yes, sir, I took pictures of the missile’s contrails,” Jerry replied with confidence. “They stretched from the ground all the way behind and above my aircraft.” He went on to explain in detail how he maneuvered the plane to secure pictures, the location the missiles had been fired from, and the approximate distance of the starbursts in relation to his plane. The intelligence officers scribbled away on notepads, recording each detail of the de-briefing. After an hour of questioning, the officers excused McIlmoyle and thanked him for his time. Jerry returned to his quarters while the debriefing notes were immediately sent to The Pentagon.
Back at the barracks where the pilots lived, Jerry felt the obligation to provide his fellow U-2 drivers, as they were called, fair warning. Jerry repeated the details of how he was shot at by two SAMs and was able to get photos.
Some of the pilots took him at his word, while others kept peppering him with questions. One of McIlmoyle’s flying mates did not appear overly concerned by the details of Jerry’s near death experience in the skies over Cuba. Major Rudy Anderson did not ask any questions as the answers might allow fear and hesitation to enter his mind. Any realization that shots had been fired by the enemy – thus turning surveillance missions into combat missions in his defenseless aircraft, might lead Anderson to perform his duties with extra caution instead of instinct and training. Anderson could not let that happen. He was ready to push himself to the limit and separate himself from the pack. Rudy Anderson was determined to fly more missions over Cuba than the other ten members of his squadron during the increasingly volatile showdown between the United States and the Soviet Union.
_ _ _
Next morning, as Jerry was walking out of the Psychological Support center and about to head across the tarmac, he heard a booming voice behind him.
“I’d like to have a word with you.”
Jerry turned. He did not know the man, but he knew what the man’s heavily decorated uniform represented. He was a three star general and he had flown down from Washington, D.C. that very morning for one purpose; to deliver a stern message to Jerry which he did without preamble.
“There was nothing on your film,” said the General. “Therefore you were not shot at.”
Jerry was stunned. He began to protest. “But I got those pictures.”
The general was unmoved. “You were not shot at so we are going to destroy your intelligence report. Is that okay with you?”
For a moment, McIlmoyle forgot he was speaking to a 3 star general. His temper rose. He knew what he saw. He knew what he had experienced.
“No, it’s not okay,” Jerry replied firmly, “Because I know I was shot at.”
The general shot a piercing look at Jerry. He had not flown from the nation’s capital for argument or debate. “Well that’s what we are going to do, because we don’t think you were shot at.”
Jerry shook his head in frustration, “Do whatever you want, but I know what happened.”
The general stood stock still, then slowly, subtly, shook his head “no”, all the while staring into Jerry’s eyes.
The message was delivered.
McIlmoyle was outraged but he was no fool. The general was so many ranks ahead of him it would be fruitless to continue to argue and downright dangerous for his military career. Jerry held his tongue and just walked away, not sure why this general was so adamant that he had not been shot at. Whatever the reason, he means business to have flown all the way here to tell me in person.
_ _ _
It wasn’t until many years later, when Jerry himself was a Brigadier General working in Washington, that he confirmed what he had known all along, that two Soviet SAMs had in fact been launched at his U-2. At this time Jerry was in charge of the nuclear codes, serving under newly elected President Ronald Reagan. He had just briefed the President, and some CIA people were also at the meeting. When the discussion adjourned one of the CIA men said to Jerry, “If there’s anything we can do for you, just ask.”
Jerry asked. He explained about missiles being fired at him many years earlier, and inquired if the CIA men could try and locate the photo analysts who examined the film he shot over Cuba on October 25, 1962.
It took a few phone calls, but the CIA located the analyst who studied the photos Jerry took decades before. The analyst called Jerry and after introducing himself, said, “Sir, you were most definitely shot at by two SAM’s.”
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