The United States emerged from World War II victorious and the most powerful nation on Earth with its enemies completely vanquished. With a world weary from years of war, American leaders at the time expected an extended period of peace and reconstruction based on cooperation with wartime allies. It soon became apparent, however, that the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, more commonly referred to as the Soviet Union, and more specifically, Russia, along with its newly expanded bloc of closely-controlled satellites were acting with increased hostility toward the nations of the West, particularly the United States.
On 2 September, 1958, Soviet MiG 17 pilots shot down Flight 60528, a U.S. Air Force C-130 reconnaissance aircraft, over Soviet Armenia. Six crewmen were aboard along with eleven Security Service Russian language specialists. What exactly happened is unclear. The C-130 crew navigated by homing in on a beacon signal, and it was suspected that Soviet navigational beacons deliberately overpowered the beacon Flight 60528 was following and drew the aircraft into Russian territory. The aircraft was easily identifiable as U.S. Air Force and non-lethal. One Russian pilot identified the craft as “a four engine transport.” Four Soviet aircraft attacked the plane in groups of two. On the third approach the C-130 caught fire, the tail section blew off, and the plane plummeted to the earth. No parachutes or survivors were identified.
This photo of Flight 60528 aflame was taken through the gunsight camera of the attacking MiG-17.
Of all Cold War incidences involving the Soviets, the shootdown of Flight 60528 is the most controversial. Not willing to admit that Flight 60528 was on a spy mission, the U.S. Government did not confront the Soviets until 6 September, when the Soviets denied all knowledge of the incident. On 12 September, the Russians stated they had “found an aircraft,” and “assumed that six airmen had perished.” At the same time, the Soviets publicly denied downing the aircraft, claiming the aircraft inadvertently “fell to the earth.” On 24 September, the Soviets returned six sets of human remains but stated they had no knowledge of the other missing eleven airmen. Throughout the Cold War period, the Soviets denied responsibility for the shootdown, and the fate of the remaining crewmen remained unknown.
Finally in 1991, Russian President Boris Yeltsin began releasing “available” information about the shootdown. Among the information was a combat report, published 20 September, 1958, from the air control officer who commanded the MiG aircraft. He described in great detail and with a great deal of professional pride the second by second events which took place as the attackers surrounded and eventually destroyed Flight 60528. It is a fascinating document describing the cool professionalism of the dedicated fighter pilot while embellishing with the usual hyperbolic language of the standard communist terminology prevalent at the time.
When I arrived in Berlin, it had been seven years since the shootdown of Flight 60528, but it was still uppermost in the minds of those whose mission was the gathering of intelligence. The loss of the airmen had hit home to the 6912th because the airmen of Flight 60528 had been based in West Germany at another Security Service site with which the 6912th worked closely. By 1965, the Soviets were convinced the 6912th Security Squadron was up to no good in the city of West Berlin, and we were warned to be ever vigilant while carrying out our duties. Our whereabouts had to be known by our superiors at all times. If we missed a rendezvous point by more than one hour we were counted as deserters and had better be able to show proof of our actions when we reappeared. We were to never mention our attachment to the 6912thSS when off the base. We did not wear our uniforms off the base but wore civilian clothes, preferably with a Germanesque style. However we were required to carry our military identification papers. Theoretically, it was our ticket to freedom if picked up by political adversaries. Upon arrival at our base of operations, Russian language specialists like me went through a week of orientation to prepare us for the job ahead. One of the tasks I had was listen to the audio transcripts of the Soviet pilots as they stalked, attacked, and eventually shot down Flight 60528.
My first impression upon listening was the incredibly poor quality of the Russian transmissions, and I began to realize that I was about to embark on the most challenging mission of my life. Over the next two years, technology helped improve voice quality, but, even at best, listening, comprehending, translating, and deciphering communications required every ounce of concentration one could muster. As I listened to the calm, professional transmissions from the pilots, it seemed almost surreal that I was hearing the account of the deaths of seventeen airmen just like myself. The pilots coolly described the first two salvos of attacks, which resulted in hits on the plane, but it was not until the third pass that Flight 60528 burst into flames and the tail section fell off. The Soviet pilot then described how the plane rolled over upside down and began a plunge to the earth. After being satisfied that the aircraft was down, the four planes systematically returned to their home base and landed. There was no further comment about the downed aircraft.
Fast forwarding to the present, I recently discovered that the National Security Agency, the primary intelligence gathering arm of the federal government, had declassified all documents pertaining to the shootdown of Flight 60528 fifty years after the event took place. Unbelieving at first, I went to the NSA website, and, sure enough, all previously secret and top secret documents including U.S. and Russian versions of the shootdown, photos, and audio tapes were available for public consumption. I downloaded the Russian pilots’ audio and copied the transcripts (both in English and Russian.)