Non-Profit Internet Source for News, Events, History, & Culture of Northern Frederick & Carroll County Md./Southern Adams County Pa.


Cold War Warriors

Incidents at Sea

Commander John Murphy, USN, Ret.

It was early 1964 and the Cuban Missile Crisis was behind us. Beatlemania had hit America. Nikita Khrushchev was about to be thrown out of office in the USSR. The aircraft carrier USS Forrestal was transiting the Atlantic after a tour of duty in the Mediterranean. The crew was on the flight deck – flying kites – a sure sign of a ship that was "at ease". Then, suddenly, a large Soviet bomber- type aircraft with the distinctive hammer and sickle markings – swooped down from the north and flew directly over the Forrestal’s flight deck at about 200 feet. It circled around and made another, very dangerous pass. Then it was gone... as quickly as it had appeared. Heading for its base in the Murmansk area – about 2900 miles to the north. Naval Intelligence experts identified the aircraft as a TU 142 F – a modified bomber that was given the NATO designation BEAR D.

This was a first. What was Crazy Ivan up to? In U.S. Navy circles a furor arose. This was a violation of traditional, peacetime rules of engagement. A violation of the ""airdrome "rights" of a naval ship in international waters. You just did not violate the airspace over an aircraft carrier. They might have been in flight operations and the BEAR D might have crashed into jet aircraft flying onto or off of the carrier. A violation of national sovereignty. How dare they do this? What we gradually learned was that Admiral of the Fleet and Chief of the Soviet Navy Admiral Sergey Gorshkov was beginning to pay us back for the humiliation he experienced during the Cuban Missile Crisis the previous year. The aircraft carrier was considered a major Cold War threat.

The landlocked Soviets were trying to show us – and the world – that their Navy was growing in strength and numbers. And, they were no longer landlocked. Particularly in their Northern Fleet area of the Barents Sea. They could meet the U.S. and the West anywhere in the world. By having a long range bomber find and fly over the USS Forrestal, they were saying "If I can find you … I can kill you!"

The Forrestal returned to its home base of Norfolk, VA. without further incident, but the Navy decided that they could play this little game with the Soviets if they wanted. Orders were sent to USS Franklin D. Roosevelt CVA 42 to conduct an undetected transit from their homeport of Mayport, Florida to the Mediterranean.

They were free to use every trick in the book in order to reach the Strait of Gibraltar without being overflown by Soviet aircraft. I was assigned as Officer in Charge of a special Naval Security Group Detachment that would ride aboard FDR. We would provide the ship, special intelligence information on any Soviet actions that might relate to the transit. The carrier was a World War II Midway Class carrier that had been upgraded for modern flight operations.

The FDR laid out a transit plan that was anything but normal. We would not use the normal "great circle route "used by carriers when transiting the Atlantic. We would ride well to the south of the normal sea lanes. Also, we would be in EMCON ALFA (no electronic emissions - communications, radar, IFF etc.). When we started transiting through the main shipping lanes we would "darken ship "at night. All lights were off except for a few, navigation lights that made us look like a merchant ship.

As we approached the Strait of Gibraltar and the Mediterranean we began feeling pretty good about ourselves. There had been no Soviet reaction. We had made it to the Med undetected – or had we? Had the Soviets seen us somehow and just chose not to react ? We did not know. I can recall walking across the flight deck past an F4 fighter that was in an alert status for immediate launch. The pilot leaned out of the cockpit and said "Hey Spook … what’s going on ? ". I felt frustrated. I had nothing to tell him and replied "Nothing I know of. Sorry ! "

Once in the Mediterannean, the FDR had a "turn over " with the USS Saratoga (CVA 42). We transferred our team of "spooks "to the Sara and prepared for the return transit – this time to Mayport, Florida. We used the same general operations plan…. anomalous route, EMCON ALFA; ; no lights, etc. etc. The result ? Ten days later, we saw the Atlantic Ocean blue water turn to the coastal green waters off Florida and we asked ourselves "What have we done ? What have we proved ? " The answer once again was – nichego, nada, nothing. The only thing we knew for sure was that we had seen no Soviet aircraft. Or ships or submarines.

The Navy stood back after our "No Hits, No Runs, No Errors "operation and decided to try something a little trickier. It was called the "Kitty Hawk Express "and it would be conducted during the transit of USS Kitty Hawk (CVA 64) from its West Coast home port to the Far East and duty near Japan in 1965. "The Hawk "did all the things that we had done in 1964 until they got within the presumed range of the Soviet bomber bases along the Kamchatka Penninsula. Then they began communicating with their high frequency communications systems. Our SIGINT stations in Japan noted an immediate reaction at bomber bases on Kamchatka. The bombers were launched within minutes and were soon flying over The Hawk, BUT …. Not before they had been met by F4 fighter jets at about 150 nautical miles from their "target ". Beyond the bombers effective weapons range. We had been tracking them much further out, but did not want to compromise our detection capabilities.

A few years later, while serving at the Navy’s Center for Naval Analyses in Arlington, VA. I led a study of approximately 150 cases of U.S. aircraft carriers vs. Soviet attack aviation in the period from 1963 to 1975. The results were very informative – for future commanding officers and Air Wing commander of U.S. Navy aircraft carriers. We showed that the carriers that were not the sitting ducks that the Soviets wanted the world to believe they were, but they had to be vigilant and situation sensitive, They had to make use of the total force with which they operated – surface ships, aircraft and especially our expanding attack submarine force escorts. Carriers had their strengths, but one had to be realistic about their weaknesses – as well. Especially nuclear carriers.

We have had lots of "incidents "aboard Carriers over the years. Fires, explosions and collisiions, but not sinkings – especially in combat. Amazing when you consider the relatively small size of an aircraft carrier’s flight deck (1000 feet) and the dangerous nature of flight operations – especially when aircraft are being launched with armed weapons.

Then throw in the unexpected visit of Soviet bombers or high performance jets – right over and within what is your "airdrome ". Those early "overflights" of our carriers in the 1960s were accidents waiting to happen. They still are as the Russian Air Force has recently reintroduced the 50 year old fleet of BEAR D aircraft as modern day reconnaissance and weapons platforms

A few years ago I interviewed a couple of former Bear D crewmen who had flown missions against U. S. aircraft carriers in the mid Atlantic. As one told me "Those missions were dangerous. They were very long (12 – 14 hours) and there was no escape from them if you got in trouble." No escape hatches or ejection seats. You were trapped in what the crewmen called "a flying coffin "from liftoff until the return to their home bases in the Kola Peninsula near Murmansk .

For a very dramatic example of how dangerous these missions were – check out the following footage on YouTube - This video clip shows a TU 16 Badger conducting a reconnaissance mission against the USS Essex (CV 9) in the very turbulent year of 1968. It occurred on 25 May 1968 in the Norwegian Sea. You can almost see the pilot Colonel Andrey Pliyev as he makes a very close pass of the Essex at a height of 15 meters before turning and crashing into the Norwegian Sea. The footage was taken from the RT (Russian Television) channel in 2008. The Russian commentator is providing a detailed description of the flight’s final moments. He also notes that the footage was considered classified by the Soviets and never shown in Russia until 2008.

Regrettably, dangerous, life-threatening incidents became all too common as the Cold War heated up in the mid to late 1960s. They involved ships, aircraft and submarines and finally led to the INCSEA (Incidents at Sea) negotiations with Soviets in the Spring of 1968. The INCSEA Agreement was formally signed in Moscow in March of 1972 by U.S. Secretary of the Navy John Warner and Soviet Admiral Sergey Gorshkov.

Read other articles by Commander John Murphy

Read other Cold War Warrior Articles