It was an incident to make the hairs stand up on the back of your neck. On August 26, 1981, an American reconnaissance aircraft was flying a little too close for comfort to the contentious zone between North and South Korea. Then, suddenly, the spy plane came under threat from a missile fired from the northern side of the border. And what happened next captured eyeballs around the globe.
The aircraft involved was an SR-71, known as the Blackbird – a long-range surveillance asset. At the time, it was one of the fastest planes in production, its turbojet engines capable of propelling it at two times the speed of sound. Not only that, but it was capable of flying at very high altitudes – heights not all military planes could achieve.
The story behind the SR-71, from conception to finished article, is fascinating. The Pentagon asked Lockheed for an update of the manufacturer’s iconic U-2 for use in the ever-developing Cold War. The objective: a plane that could be both fast and stealthy, with the ultimate aim of it being impossible to shoot down.
However, saying that you want a new type of plane doesn’t just wish it into being. The creators of the SR-71 were faced with a variety of design challenges in order to make this aircraft a reality. One of the most significant of these challenges was how to deal with the tremendous heat levels generated by a plane traveling so fast over such long distances. It was feared that the aircraft would simply melt.
Lockheed’s engineers therefore had to try and think of a way around the problem. They used titanium to build the plane, but this proved not to be wholly effective. That was when Ben Rich, a member of Lockheed’s advanced development team, Skunk Works, came up with a simple but elegant solution.
Rich hit upon a design feature that is now industry standard in stealth technology. He remembered from a university course that the color black both absorbs and re-emits heat. Consequently, he had the new aircraft painted completely black.
This is the reason why the SR-71 was fittingly dubbed Blackbird; and it went into manufacture in 1964. Moreover, it was this model of supersonic surveillance plane which the North Koreans had in their sights that day in August almost 20 years later. As they were to learn, however, this was no ordinary aircraft that they were trying to shoot down.
The Blackbird in question was flying high in a demilitarized zone on a strictly reconnaissance mission that day in 1981. At the time, spying operations of this kind were very common in the region. After all, American leaders wanted to know more about North Korean military capability and the location of both troops and anti-aircraft batteries. Which is where the Blackbird came in.
At the controls of such an advanced aircraft, the pilot, Lieutenant Colonel Maury Rosenberg, quite literally saw the missile coming from miles away. He had clear visibility of the vapor trail given off by the missile as well as the “airbursts” it produced. Newspaper reports of the time do not state whether evasive actions were necessary – but more of the story has come to light since.
You see, in subsequent years the plane’s crew would reveal more about what happened that day. Rosenberg had been helming the SR-71, performing routine reconnaissance. Yet he claims to have been aware of the danger that he was in. “You never really relax,” he said in a YouTube video that’s been watched almost five million times.
It is important to remember that the Blackbird was full of hi-tech kit to study terrain – but that it was also equipped with advanced technology to monitor for incoming enemy fire. For their part, Rosenberg and his co-pilot had actually done two of their assigned “passes” before the attempted strike happened.
Once Rosenberg then realized that a missile had been fired, he estimated that he had about a minute before it would hit. Over time, we have learned that the projectile in question was a Soviet-made guided missile. And back then it was widely known that the USSR was in the practice of supplying its Communist allies with state-of-the-art weaponry during the Cold War.
Rosenberg, meanwhile, knew that with a matter of seconds to go before potential impact, he needed to move fast. He and his co-pilot therefore agreed to maneuver to the left – because leaning the aircraft right would have taken them into North Korean airspace.
Now although the Blackbird was super advanced, it didn’t have the quick maneuverability of a fighter jet. Additionally, since it wasn’t armed, it was incapable of shooting the missile down. As a result, Rosenberg’s only option was to try and evade the danger using the plane’s superior speed.
Having altered course and increased velocity, Rosenberg could see from his cockpit that the missile’s course was not changing. This is because although it was a “guided” missile, it had to be operated from the ground. The Blackbird was simply moving too fast for the North Koreans to re-calibrate their projectile’s co-ordinates. Speed had won the day.
Thanks to his quick thinking and the impressive plane he was piloting, then, Rosenberg was able to maneuver out of harm’s way. He claims to have seen the missile detonate on his right side. And he estimates that the missile exploded between a mile and a mile and a half from its intended target.
Ultimately, the Blackbird was an incredibly stealthy aircraft – giving new meaning to the phrase “flying blind.” And even when it was detected or spotted, the plane’s speed meant that it could get out of trouble very rapidly. As a result, U.S. pilots could survey hostile territory in relative safety.
It’s also worth noting that this incident in 1981 was not an isolated occurrence. It was a time of greatly heightened tension between the then superpowers of the USA and the Soviet Union. Accordingly, it should be remembered with sadness that there were other occasions when planes were shot down.
The border between North and South Korea was a particularly troubled area during those years, too. North Korea regularly complained about intrusions into its territory by South Korean or Western aircraft and ships. Consequently, it was an extremely dangerous zone and one that Western leaders kept an eye on – with some help from our friend the Blackbird.
The SR-71 was an incredibly advanced and effective piece of engineering. Indeed, it is telling that from the time it made its debut to its 1998 retirement, not one Blackbird was brought down. And as the long-retired Rosenberg would probably agree: if you’re going to be fired upon by a missile, make sure you’re in a Blackbird.
But did you know that a plane is most likely to crash around take off or landing? That’s if the pilot doesn’t have to dodge a missile, of course. So, when this aircraft malfunctioned while coming into land on a ship in the middle of the ocean, you can hardly imagine what tensions were like in the cockpit. And the events that unfolded were nail-bitingly stressful to watch.
Flying a plane is really difficult. That’s something we all know. Pilots are looked up to the world over, and none more so than military pilots. But that doesn’t make the feat pulled off by Capt. William Mahoney any less incredible. His story is one of broken hardware, difficult choices and perhaps the unlikeliest life-saving device that you’ve ever heard about.
Of all the branches of the U.S. armed forces, the United States Marine Corps (USMC) is perhaps the most famous. Its history goes back as far as the American War of Independence, beginning in Philadelphia in 1775. According to its official website, “the Marine Corps functions as a unique force, combining ground, aviation and amphibious assets.”
It’s a combination of the last two parts of the USMC remit that sets the scene for this story. The USS Bataan is a multi-purpose ship. At over 830 feet long and more than 100 feet wide, it’s capable of carrying a large number of marines into operation. Not only can it launch landing craft and helicopters, but it’s also designed to carry vertical take-off airplanes. Airplanes such the AV-8B Harrier.
The Harrier weighs in at around 31,000 pounds. It’s capable of what’s known as VSTOL. This essentially means that the aircraft can take off and land vertically, rather than using a runway like most other planes. And it’s thanks to that ability that this amazing story unfolded.
Captain William Mahoney’s flight started off normally. Mahoney, who is from the city of Athens in Georgia, was conducting operations with the 22nd Marine Expeditionary Unit. He was part of Marine Attack Squadron 223, which is also known as the Bulldogs. And Mahoney certainly showed some of the tenacity of his squadron’s namesake that day.
But not long after takeoff, Mahoney noticed that he had a problem. And it was a big one. The landing gear at the front of his plane was malfunctioning. As soon as he realized, he slowed down, and contacted the control tower back on the USS Bataan.
Another pilot was at work in the control tower, and they set about researching the problem that Mahoney had encountered. At this point, the stricken jet was some 2,000 feet above the Bataan. But the two pilots decided that they needed to have a better look at what was going on underneath the plane. And that meant conducting a fly-by at a much lower altitude.
So Mahoney flew much lower – at just 300 feet – which allowed the pilot who was talking to him have a much clearer look at the broken landing gear. And that pilot had some pretty bad news for Mahoney. Talking to the official U.S. Marines website, Mahoney later explained that the tower “determined that my nose gear did not come back down.”
That left Mahoney with a number of uncomfortable options. Either he could ditch the plane in the sea, losing the incredibly expensive machine in the process, or he could try and land it without the aid of the front landing gear. It was then that the tower remembered that the ship had something that could help.
The official name for the object is a crash cradle. But to the layman, it might more accurately be described as a stool. Albeit a stool that’s designed to carry the full weight of the AV-B8 Harrier’s nose. The stool meant that Mahoney could attempt an incredibly risky maneuver to bring the plane home safely.
The plan was a reasonably simple one. Or, at least a reasonably simple one to explain. Mahoney would have to slowly lower his plane using its VSTOL capabilities, bringing the nose with the broken landing gear to rest on the stool. Of course, in practice, it was far more difficult than that.
The first part of the maneuver involved Mahoney lowering the plane to just 20 feet above the deck of the ship. And despite the pressure, Mahoney told the Marines’ website he had remained calm. “At this point I had kind of forgotten that I had no nose gear and I was just focused on landing, because that’s what I had to do,” he said.
Hovering just above the deck, Mahoney made sure that his plane was stable and perfectly lined up with the stool in order to make the audacious landing. But then another problem reared its head, making the final stretch of the landing even more perilous than everything that had come before it.
That’s because Mahoney could no longer see the stool. “I’m at 20 feet, stabilized, and I can’t see the stool – I don’t even know it’s there. I couldn’t see it coming over the ship, I remember thinking, ‘Oh boy, this is going to get interesting.’” To all intents and purposes, then, Mahoney had to make the difficult maneuver blind.
While he didn’t realize it at the time, the flight crew who would usually be stationed on the deck during a landing had been evacuated. That was in case Mahoney didn’t manage to pull off the difficult landing successfully. With great care, he started to lower the multi-million-dollar aircraft down to the unseen stool below.
Mahoney’s own description of the incident doesn’t quite seem to capture the incredible nature of the feat that he’d achieved. “I remember idling the aircraft, my main gear hitting and all of a sudden my nose dropping. It dropped more than I expected,” he said. “But at that point, I was along for the ride.”
The nose hit the stool almost perfectly, in fact. It bounced for a moment before coming to a stop. Mahoney had managed to pull off something truly remarkable, landing a damaged plane onto a small, cushioned space. But once the tension of the experience had faded, the shock of what he’d just done finally began to sit in.
“I remember feeling it just hit and that’s it. But then I had to sit there for a minute and remember how to turn the jet off and shut everything off,” Mahoney recalled. “It was just a pretty big relief, and I didn’t realize how much I was shaking until I actually got out of the aircraft.” And he didn’t go unrewarded for his heroic actions.
Mahoney hadn’t just saved the aircraft. Thanks to his actions, in fact, it was back in the air before too long. A few months later, Capt. Mahoney was awarded with the Air Medal. This is given to service personnel who manage to set themselves apart while flying their planes. And Mahoney had certainly done that.
According to Colonel William Dunn, who presented Mahoney with the medal, his actions stand out in the modern era. “In the world of ejection seat aircraft, it is not always the first choice to bring the airplane back after something like this and risk the pilot. But this was incredible,” said Dunn in a press release quoted by The Marine Corps Times.