In October 1962, the Cuban missile crisis threatened to become a global thermonuclear war. The United States and the Soviet Union entered into a conflict over the presence of nuclear missiles on the island of Cuba, and a single spark could have ended civilization as we know it. But what we do not have so present today is that at the height of that conflict, a lost plane near the North Pole almost led the world to that result.
On October 4, 1962, a US spy plane that was making a reconnaissance flight over Cuba came up with a disturbing finding: Soviet SS-4 short-range ballistic missiles and SS-5 medium-range ballistic missiles. Soviet leader Nikita Krushchev took advantage of the offer of Cuban leader Fidel Castro to store missiles in his country, just a few hundred kilometers from America.
Washington, furious, ordered the United States Navy to block the country, which was technically an act of war, and also left its troops ready before a possible invasion and prepared its nuclear weapons just in case. US forces around the world were on DEFCON 2 alert, just one step away from nuclear war.
On October 27, when US intelligence was trying to assess the state of the missile facilities, they shot down a U-2 plane flying over Cuba, piloted by Air Force commander Rudolph Anderson. That attack made the Undersecretary of Defense declare that “(The Soviets) have made the first shot.”
What the decision makers at that time did not know was that there was a good chance of a second shot, one that could have triggered a total war.
As the intelligence of the United States looked towards Cuba with a magnifying glass, the rest of the reconnaissance operations against the Soviet Union continued normally. Therefore, on October 27, a U-2 piloted by Captain Charles Maultsby took off from the Eielson Air Force Base in Alaska.
Maultsby was headed to the North Pole, where he would collect air samples that could give more clues about Soviet nuclear tests north of the Arctic Circle.
At that time, GPS had not yet been invented and Maultsby was too far north to rely on land navigation systems, so the pilot was flying with the stars. Unfortunately, and partly due to a northern lights, Maultsby got lost and began to go in the wrong direction, entering Soviet airspace.
Soviet air defense troops, known as Voyska PVO , detected the U-2 and sent their MiG-19 fighters to intercept it. At the same time, the United States Air Force sent a pair of F-102 Delta Dagger fighters to protect the U-2 and take Maultsby back home. The fighters generally carried Falcon air-to-air missiles, and their mission in wartime was to shoot down Soviet bombers that could carry nuclear weapons. A really worrying detail was that the Pentagon had changed the alert status to DEFCON 3, and the missiles normally carried by the Delta Daggers were replaced by nuclear missiles. Once equipped with these missiles, the pilots could launch nuclear warheads at will.
(To give you an idea, you can see the power of the nuclear weapons that these planes carried in the video below. The W-54 nuclear warhead they carried had a power equivalent to 0.25 kilotons, or what is the same , 250 tons of TNT. The Hiroshima pump, in comparison, had a power of 16 kilotons).
What happened after? As you and I continue on the face of the Earth, it seems that the thing was resolved peacefully. However, it is not very difficult to imagine how things could have been twisted
The F-102 pilots were ordered to defend the U-2 from Soviet fighters, but they only had nuclear weapons to carry out the mission. If they had really launched them against their Soviet counterparts, Moscow would have interpreted it with total certainty as the first advances towards a total nuclear war. Once their fears were confirmed, the Soviet command would have ordered a first attack to destroy as many American nuclear weapons as possible on the ground. A key part of this attack would have been the launch of Cuba’s missiles against targets such as Washington DC and New York, and reprisals would have turned the island into radioactive ashes.
Also, if Captain Maultsby had crashed or been shot down, the United States government could have considered that it was the “second shot” and possibly used their nuclear weapons before they were destroyed by a Russian surprise attack.
Tensions between Russia, China and the United States are at their peak for a long time. But at least, election campaigns and trade wars are not the same as a nuclear holocaust, although we should never forget how close we have been to that happening.
If you want to know more about the incident, check out the latest Mark Felton Productions mini documentary that is above all or read this article published by Vanity Fair in 2008.