Furnished by Ron Knott, former Navy pilot from his book, "Supersonic Cowboys."
The movie Thirteen
Days explains just how
threatened the United States was with nuclear war during the fall of
1962. Most Americans know very little about this impending danger
that could have destroyed a major portion of our population. The
movie explains the political predicament very well but only skims
over the military function that I and many others endured not only
for Thirteen Days but also for more than thirteen months. As indicated in the movie the
powers that be in Washington almost lost control of the situation
several times during the Thirteen
Days. Thank God a
peaceful agreement was achieved.
Retired Admiral Paul Gillcrist
represented the Navy and the pilots very well as the military adviser
for the movie Thirteen
Days. He was my boss
in Fighter Squadron 62. We flew many missions together in and around
Cuba during those uncertain days. There were also several aircraft
lost and pilots killed during this operation that was not contributed
to hostile activity. The movie only noted the loss of one aircraft
and one pilot who was brought down by a Surface to Air Missile (SAM).
Our Air Group was placed on alert
during the first week of October 1962. We were briefed about the
missile build up and to be ready to strike our assigned targets in
Cuba at a moments notice. The entire Air Group (about 80 aircraft)
would hit selected targets and destroy the SAM sites when the orders
All pilots were restricted to the
base at Naval Air Station Cecil Field, FL and could not tell family
members when they would be home or why they were being retained on
base. We could only view pictures of our assigned target, in a dark
room, with our Top Secret clearance in hand. It was interesting to
note that these same pictures were published in “Time” and
“Newsweek” magazines the very next week.
After a few days into the missile
crisis we were deployed to Key West Naval Air Station, FL with our
F-8 Crusaders fighter aircraft for alert duty. This placed us only 90 miles from
the island of Cuba. That was only about nine minutes away in the
We were scrambled many times when MiGs got airborne in the little
island to the south. The Ground Control Intercept (GCI) site was very
good at supplying our pilots with the MiG’s heading, altitude and
speed. If the MiG headed north, or toward an American surveillance
aircraft we would be vectored in for the intercept at the ‘speed of
heat.’ Somehow the MiG pilots knew when we were in hot pursuit of
them and they headed back to Cuba as fast as possible.
We never got a shot at a MiG
although we chased many away from the fleet. We were like a big
brother coming to the aid of the surveillance aircraft. If some MiG
harassed them we took over the fight since they had no weapons to
defend themselves. Many times we would be skirting the three-mile
limit off the cost of Cuba. That limit was later changed to twelve
miles from the shoreline.
to scramble was when the Red
Alert Phone rang in our Ready Room. The two duty Fighter Pilots, in full flight
gear, would run fast as they could to the flight line. We were on the
second deck of a big hangar, which was about 100 yards from the armed
airplanes. At the first tingle of the Red
Alert Phone we were off and running to the flight line. At the same time the line personnel were notified of
the alert, the plane captain would have the airplane engine started
by the time the pilot arrived. We only took time to fasten the two
upper fittings on the torso harness, close the canopy, and head for
the runway. Unfortunately, many pieces of support gear were blown over by jet blast from our
high power settings while taxiing.
The tower would clear us for
take-off with a green light. By the time we got airborne our radios
were warmed up and we could hear the vector commands coming from the
GCI site. Of course we were breathing so hard from the 100-yard dash
that our initial communications were sometimes garbled.
event took place during one alert when LCDR Paul Gillcrist and I were
scrambled. When the Red
Alert Phone rang Paul had just taken a bite out of a big donut, which was covered
with white powdered sugar. Paul ran out the Ready Room with the donut
in his mouth. He was about two paces in front of me and was unaware that an Admiral was about to
turn the corner in the passageway. He and the Admiral hit head-on.
As I passed
the bodies tumbling on the floor I noticed the white powder coming out of Paul’s mouth. I thought of “Puff the Magic Dragon”
as I ran by.
I ran to
the airplane, got airborne, and was laughing so hard I could hardly
talk to the controllers. Sure enough there was a pair of MiG-17s
making passes on an Air Force C-121 (AWEPS) aircraft just off the cost of Cuba. The MiGs departed just before my arrival.
The Air Force brothers were sure glad to see me on their wing.
If I recall
correctly the record time for getting airborne, after the Red Alert Phone
rang, was less than three minutes. An Air Force fighter squadron was stationed in portable buildings
next to the flight line and we would easily beat them in the air.
Jim Brady, who was one of our
outstanding pilots, wrote the following report. His statement
indicates how critical the situation was in those days.
LT Howie (Kickstand) Bullman
and LTJG Jim (Diamond) Brady of Fighter Squadron 62 were on minute
alert duty at Boca Chica NAS in Key West, Florida. The purpose of
this “hot” alert was to provide cover and protection for our
surveillance aircraft that were photographing Russian ships bringing
medium and short-range nuclear tipped missiles into Cuba.
the day in question, LT Bullman and LTJG Brady were scrambled to
intercept two MiG-17s that were making gun passes on several P-2Vs
and P-3Vs that were patrolling the Florida Straits. These Navy
aircraft were taking low altitude photos of the decks of Russian
ships carrying numerous missiles into Cuban ports for placement all
The Cuban Missile Crisis was,
without a doubt, the
seminal point of the Cold War in that there was never a time when the
two nuclear powers stood more sternly, eye to eye, with the potential
for nuclear war as the result. The movie “Thirteen Days” in
recent years clearly depicted the level of tension that existed
between the antagonists during this period.
LT Bullman and LTJG Brady were
airborne in two and one half minutes from the sounding of the alarm
claxon (Red Alert Phone). They made a section takeoff in afterburner
and accelerated and climbed rapidly to twenty five thousand feet,
where they continued to accelerate to supersonic speed while taking
vectors from BrownStone, the ground control radar station which was
charged with the task of guiding such intercepts over the Florida
About 63 miles from Key West
and perhaps six minutes from take off, both LT Bullman and Brady
contacted the two MiG-17s via their APG-94 radar systems. BrownStone
confirmed the targets and LT Bullman acknowledged taking over the
intercept by calling “Judy” which was the code word for assuming
control over the intercept in the cockpit.
MiG-17s never saw LT Bullman or LTJG Brady as they slid in behind and
slightly below the rapidly departing MiGs that were heading south
toward Santa Clara, Cuba. With their Sidewinders growling in their
headsets, indicating an infrared lock on the tail pipes of the MiGs,
LT Bullman requested permission to attack by firing their missiles.
There was what seemed like an interminable silence from BrownStone.
Actually, the delay in responding was probably less than twenty
command was to, “Break off the intercept and return to base.”
Bullman acknowledged the command and the section of F-8s headed back
to Key West. Many hours were spent in debriefing the pilots by a host
of military and civilian officials.
MiG-17s near Cuba
Post Script: It was many
years before both pilots came to understand why the attack had been
called off. Negotiations between the White House and the Kremlin had
reached a critical stage and the destruction of two Russian built
and, probably, Russian flown aircraft would have, perhaps, led to the
outbreak of hostilities between the Nations. No one can ever know for
sure what would have happened had LT Bullman not requested
instructions from “BrownStone.” The rules of engagement in place
at the time would have allowed the two F-8 pilots to fire on any
aircraft engaged in a hostile or threatening act against any elements
of the Armed Forces of the United States. LT Bullman, through his
cool-headed handling of the situation, may have prevented a chain of
events from unfolding that could have been extremely unfortunate for
both Nations as well as
the entire world.
After many weeks at Key West our
squadron deployed on board the USS Lexington (CVA 16) for Combat Air Patrol near Cuba. Our primary mission at the time was for air
superiority in case a MiG harassed the Photo aircraft taking brownie pictures of
Cuba. These Photo Birds continued the surveillance flights for months
after the so-called Thirteen
Days had passed.
My squadron also flew CAP (Combat
Air Patrol) from the airport at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba (Gitmo)
for many weeks. Again our mission was to be on station, usually above
40,000 feet, orbiting just off the south coast of Cuba. We were there
ready for action should a MiG made a run on one of our surveillance
aircraft that was flying across Cuba.
There were two air fields at Gitmo at that time, Leeward Point which was 8000 feet long and McCalla
Field, east of the bay, which was only 4000 feet long.
The “powers that be” decided
that the long runway at Leeward Point needed to be re-surfaced during
this time of threat. This left McCalla Field as the only operating
airport at Gitmo.
This 4000-foot runway was the only one available for take-offs and
A fully loaded F-8, in
afterburner, could get airborne in less than 3000 feet, even on a hot
day. But, the same airplane required almost 8000 feet to stop on a
dry runway. Installing arresting gear mid-way down the runway to trap
our fast flying fighters on landing solved this problem. The same
tailhook that caught the cable for shipboard landing was used to
arrest the airplane on the short field. It worked and was fun. But,
if you got a hook skip, or missed the wire, you had to immediately go
to full power in order to keep from becoming a big jet ski off the
end of the runway.
Normally, there were two aircraft
returning from each mission. Both planes had to make an arrested
landing. It took about ninety seconds to re-set the arresting gear
after the first fighter landed before the second fighter could land.
We had to somehow delay the second plane from landing by at least
ninety seconds. We could not fly but a few hundred yards north of the
airport because of the border between the good guys and the bad guys.
The bad guys had Anti-Aircraft weapons trained in our direction and
we did not want to give them an excuse to use them.
Of course we could have separated
prior to reaching the field and delayed the second fighter from
entering that sacred airspace for a couple of minutes. But this is
not the way a Fighter Pilot thinks. He wants to be joined on his
leader’s wing in tight formation, at the speed of heat, all the way
The problem was simple to solve
with Fighter Pilot logic. As the first fighter pitched out for
landing the second airplane would automatically pull up into a
vertical loop. That stopped his forward motion and gave the ground
crew the extra time needed for the arresting gear to be re-set. More
importantly it allowed the pilot to demonstrate his real ‘Tiger’
spirit. His overhead loop should end where it started, if executed
properly, and he would then pitch-out for landing.
We got by with this procedure by
telling the “many-motor” pilots in charge of base flight
operations that was our only option. Those were the days when we
thought, “Having multi-engine time in your log book would be worse
than having ‘VD’ in your health record.” The many-motor,
station safety officer, thought we were a wild bunch to say the
When we first arrived at McCalla
Field the station Commanding Officer welcomed our squadron on board.
He asked us to make low passes over the base housing area, when
taking off, so the dependents would know that the fighters have
“During this tense time your
presence would give the civilians an added awareness of security,”
That was authorization a Fighter
Pilot loved to hear. We obeyed his worthy request by making a hard
right turn on take-off heading for the dependent quarters. We were so
low that I am sure some of the shingles were blown off their roofs.
And with F-8 afterburner blazing they were pounded with mega
decibels. These stunts had to be frightful to say the least. Our fun
only lasted one day.
The Commanding Officer came back
the next day and said, “They know you are here! You guys are
shocking them more than the Cuban threat. Knock it off!” We did!
At the end of this 4,000-foot
runway was a steep drop-off. It was about fifty feet straight down to
the bay where a squadron of P-5Ms and other Navy float planes were
moored. They had this little secluded cove all to themselves like a
flock of contented ducks along the sandy beach. Needless to say, we
had to get their attention as well. On take-off we would suck up the
landing gear, drop down to their altitude, and rake their place of
tranquility with the deafening noise of the F-8. In just a couple of
days they moved all aircraft far away from our area. As the old
saying goes, “Here comes the Fighter Pilots, pilots lock up the women and
kids.” We tried out best to live up to our reputation.
Other interesting aspects of
flying out of Gitmo were the danger the pilots faced in case they had to eject near the
runway. Hundreds of sharks could be seen swimming in the bay, at both
ends of the runway, where the natives dumped garbage. Therefore, a
water landing was not a good decision. The Marines had land mines
placed all around the perimeter of the base and stationed their big
K-9 watch dogs throughout the property. Landing on an explosive mine
or in the mouth of a German Sheppard was not the leisurely place one
would expect in the picturesque Caribbean. Perchance the pilot landed
across the fence in mainland Cuba, just a few hundred yards from the
end of the runway; he would become a prisoner of Cuba. Our resolve
was not to eject in this area. If all else failed we would go out to
sea and to make a nylon descent (parachute).
Alert Phone rang. I
was duty Fighter Pilot. I ran to my airplane and mounted up like a
professional Fighter Pilot heading out to war, so I thought. In my
excitement I turned the corner too quickly and this caused the right
main tire to blow out. The airplane was flopping down the runway like
driving over a plowed field. A blown tire was not about to stop me.
I had to go. The Red
Alert Phone was not to
The airplane had enough thrust to
get airborne with a blown tire. But my directional control was out of
hand. She was heading for the ditch on the right side of the runway
as I was quickly accelerating.
Going off the runway could have
ruined my whole day. So, in order to have symmetrical control of the
airplane, and to correct the extreme right drift, I just locked the
left brake and blew that tire as well. My directional problem was
solved, but the ride was terrible. In a few seconds I was airborne
looking for my bogie. Flat tires were the least of my concerns. I
learned long ago that an airplane is no good on earth.
The tower was screaming,
you blew a tire on take-off!”
I said, “No, I blew two tires
on take-off and I am switching frequencies to Combat Control.”
When I called the controller I
said, “This is Silverstep 209 where is my target?”
They said, “Your target is
flying around the east end of the island at 2000 feet at 160 knots,
vector 095 degrees for join-up.”
I thought, “Did I hear join-up
at 2000 feet and 160 knots?” I said, “Say again,” with a lot of
uncertainty in my voice.
The controller repeated what he
had said but added a little more information during this
He said, “Your target is a Navy
R4D (DC-6) carrying a group of Congressmen from Washington. They want
to take pictures of a Fighter flying wing on them in this hostile
I said to myself, “What?”
Here I almost destroyed a beautiful fighter, and possibly myself,
just so a group of Congressmen could go back to Washington with
pictures of a Navy fighter-flying escort on them!
I made sure they got some good
close-ups as I almost put my wing tip in their face. The R-4D pilot
was a little nervous to say the least.
Here I was airborne, armed for a
kill, with two live Sidewinder missiles, and 550 rounds of hot 20mm ammunition on board and my
mission was no more than a Photo Op. Dumb!
I flew with the politicians for a
few minutes then headed back to McCalla Field for landing.
When I called the tower, for
landing instructions, the tower operator said, “Silverstep 209 stand-by one!”
In a moment a very stern and
authoritative voice from the tower radio penetrated my helmet with
“Silverstep 209 this is the Safety Officer speaking. You will not be allowed to
land at this airport because you have a blown tire.”
I said, “McCalla Tower I have
two blown tires. I can easily make an arrested landing with no danger
to me or my airplane.”
He said, “Silverstep 209 your airplane is fully armed and could blow up on landing.”
I thought to myself, “I know
why this senseless pilot is stationed at this remote place. He is out
of touch with reality.”
He said, “The USS Lexington is just a few miles south. You will have to fly there and make an
arrested landing on that carrier. You will not be allowed to land on
my airport with blown tires and live ammo.”
I switched over to the USS Lexington’s radio
frequency, told them of my problems and requested permission to land
on their ship. I had flown on and off that boat many times and was
well qualified to land there on.
The Air Boss of the ship said, “Silverstep 209 stand-by one!”
I thought, “Here we go again!”
In a moment the Air Boss called
and asked me if my plane had made an arrested landing at McCalla
Field in the past few days.
Of course it had and I said, “Yes
He said, “In that case Silverstep 209 you will not be allowed to land on this carrier.”
I said, “Why not?”
He replied, “There is a
regulation that requires the tailhook to be inspected after landing
on a concrete runway before it can make an arrested landing on a
ship.” He continued to say, “It is possible that the tailhook
point may be hardened after such a landing on concrete and could
possibly break upon landing on his ship.”
I said, “Sir, they won’t let
me land at the airbase and you won’t let me land on the ship. I am
too low on fuel to go to another airport what do you recommend?”
He said, “Silverstep 209 stand-by one!”
By then my oxygen mask was
percolating with cold sweat like a cheap coffee pot boiling over.
Finally, he came back on the air
and said, “Silverstep 209 this is the Air Boss speaking.”
I said, “Yes sir, go ahead, I
hear you loud and clear.”
He said, “I have worked out an
agreement with the tower controller at McCalla Field. You can make an
arrested landing there, but first you must expend all ammunition and
dump fuel down to the absolute minimum.”
I said, “WILCO SIR,” which
means I understand and will comply with his command. “Piece of
cake,” I thought, “Now I have a place to roost this crippled
LT John “Pirate”
Nichols was returning to McCalla Field from CAP station and heard our
conversation. He joined on my wing and flew safety observer while I
fired 500 rounds of 20mm ammunition and two live Sidewinder missiles into the ocean. I then dumped fuel down to the minimum and
headed for the airport. John checked my landing gear to make sure the
blown tires had not damaged other systems in the wheel wells. He
landed ahead of me in case my landing might cause the field to be
closed for a while if things went wrong. My landing was a normal Navy
arrested landing that stopped my plane in just a few hundred feet.
After stopping I noticed hundreds
of people lined up on both sides of the runway to see this pilot and
airplane go up in flames. I thought, “They must have sold tickets
for this event.” Well, I disappointed them and lived happily ever
after, most of the time.
A few days later LT Dick Oliver
and I were flying CAP at 45,000′ when two additional fighters
relieved us on station. After flying the race tract pattern for
almost two hours we were ready for a little rest and relaxation. We
started descending rapidly and accelerated beyond the speed of sound
in a very short time as we were heading for McCalla Field. It was
always fun to let the Crusader do what it was designed to do and that was to fly very fast. In fact
the Crusader was the first US production aircraft that was able to exceed 1000
We were smoking through the air
at the speed of heat when all of a sudden LT Oliver’s aircraft
slowed down very fast. I was not expecting his rapid deceleration and
slid past him quickly. LT Oliver was a very smooth pilot and would
never try to throw his wingman out of position like that. Something
had to be wrong with his airplane.
I heard a muffled transmission
but could not determine what it was or where it was coming from. I
pulled almost straight up to stop my forward motion in order to get
back in position on my leaders wing. I rolled inverted and observed
him several thousand feet below flying very slow. In fact he had his
airplane configured for landing, with gear down, wing up, and we were
still about 75 miles from the airport.
I had to perform all kind of ‘S’
turns to get back in position. All the while I was calling him on my
radio but was only getting garble transmissions in return. As I was
joining on his starboard wing I noticed that his canopy was gone.
Wow! That explained his rapid deceleration and the muffled
transmissions I had heard.
Losing a canopy at any altitude
and airspeed can be a frightening experience. A canopy loss at
35,000′ and at 1.2 Mach is very dangerous for many reasons. It is
highly likely that the pilot can be ejected from the airplane without
notice. This is due to the fact that the Martin Baker ejection seat
is designed to fire, or eject, when the face curtain is pulled out of
its holder. The purpose of the face curtain is two-fold. It is
attached to the armed ejection pin by a cable and is actually the
trigger that fires the seat. It also helps protect the pilot’s face
from the sudden windblast during ejection.
As I looked at LT Oliver’s
airplane I noticed that his face curtain was flapping in the wind.
That meant his ejection seat could fire at any moment. All that was
needed was another half-inch of travel and he would have been shot
out of the airplane.
After we slowed down, our
transmissions were easier to understand. I told him what I observed
and the possibility of an unexpected ejection. We had no choice but
to continue to the airport, not knowing what might happen.
The other major consideration
was the fact that he would have to make an arrested landing at the
short field as noted above. In an arrested landing the airplane
decelerates very rapidly. If we made it to the airport without the
seat firing there was a good possibility that the seat may fire
during the sudden stop when catching the arresting cable.
These older F-8s did not have
ground level and zero airspeed capability of saving a pilot. As I
recall we had to have at least flying speed for the parachute to
completely deploy. Our concern was if the seat fired at the time of
the arrested landing the pilot probably would not survive. To say the
least the remainder of that flight was very tense. It sure would have
been nice to have an 8000′ runway nearby.
We carefully continued on to
McCalla Field for landing. The tower was notified and all the
emergency equipment was standing by for our arrival. In fact the
tower wanted me to land first in case the seat did fire causing the
airport to be closed. After I made my arrested landing and was
taxiing to the flight line I observed LT Oliver catching the wire,
coming to a rapid stop, and climbing out of his airplane as quick as
We noticed after landing that
this canopy had not separated from the airplane as we thought. The
canopy frame was still locked and attached. The problem was the glass
in the canopy had broken. Of course the results were the same, except
they could not fault the pilot for not properly locking his canopy.
These are just a few of the good,
the bad and the ugly times we experienced during the Cuban Missile
Crisis. Such events were not out of the ordinary when operating high
performance aircraft from land or sea. There are many similar stories
from those who flew missions in all branches of the military in all
types of airplane or helicopters. When you’re operating on the EDGE the normal can become abnormal instantly. We all required a lot of
professional attention and help from the Almighty to survive.
I can honestly say that my
military comrades are some of the most respected folks that I have
ever had dealing with. We worked together as a team, no matter the
rank or rate. We had a mission to perform and we did. I honor those
who gave all for their country no matter where or when.
I recorded these accounts for my
children and my children’s children. I would encourage all to take
the time to jot down some events of your past that can be passed on
to others. I have noted in my ‘remembering’ that a part of me is
awakened and the review is a tonic for my soul. You were there. You
did it. Record it.
[Author’s Note: Just
a little review of why and how the military can use Guantanamo Bay,
Cuba (Gitmo) for their operations. It was leased by the US Government
in 1903, during the administration of President Teddy Roosevelt. The
original agreement was reaffirmed by a treaty signed in 1934 by
President Franklin Roosevelt. The treaty, still in effect today,
gives the US perpetual lease on the land. Cuba has tried to break the
lease many times but the US would not cancel the contract with them.
One strange situation, especially during the Cuban Crises, was the
fact that native Cubans work on the Naval Base as employees of the US
government. They come in from main land Cuba each morning and go back
through the security gate each evening. We always questioned the
security of such an operation. Gitmo is the oldest overseas Naval
Base and the only one on communist soil.]