Seeing is believing.
- By J.R. Dailey
- Air & Space magazine, November 2012
"Viewport," by National Air and Space Museum director J.R. Dailey, opens each issue of Air & Space magazine. The column highlights the Museum's ongoing efforts to preserve the history of aviation and spaceflight. This article appeared in the October/November 2012 issue of Air & Space.
If there had been doubts about the value of aerial reconnaissance before October 1962, they were instantly dispelled by the dramatic confrontation that took place that month: the Cuban Missile Crisis. On the 50th anniversary of that standoff between the United States and the Soviet Union, this issue of Air & Space/Smithsonian presents a point of view that has rarely been heard: that of the Cubans who lived through the crisis. For the feature on page 32, Cuban-American writer Rafael Lima interviewed émigrés who were in Cuba in 1962 and witnessed trucks under military guard carrying mysterious cargo through rural streets. He talked to others who were startled by what appeared to be U.S. fighters—in fact, RF-8U Crusaders—ripping at low altitude across the island. From another unusual vantage point, the copilot of a U.S. Navy SP-2H Neptune patrol aircraft recounts on page 16 his crew’s experience during the Navy’s blockade.
This month at the National Air and Space Museum, Dino Brugioni, one of the founders of the National Photographic Interpretation Center, will give a presentation on the work he and his colleagues did to inform President John Kennedy about the missiles in Cuba. In his 1990 book Eyeball to Eyeball: The Inside Story of the Cuban Missile Crisis, Brugioni describes the briefings given by the photo interpreters. As they informed one official after another, up the chain of responsibility, each response was the same as that of the man at the top: “Are you sure?” President Kennedy asked. Thanks to the Air Force and CIA pilots who flew U-2 missions over Cuba, the photo interpreters could answer yes.
Beneath the Lockheed U-2C hanging in the Museum’s Looking at Earth gallery, an exhibit includes photographs of the missile sites, taken not only by the U-2 from its 70,000-foot altitude but also by the Navy and Marine RF-8 Crusaders and Air Force RF-101 Voodoos that flew low-level reconnaissance missions. For the pilots of those aircraft, the only defense was speed, and despite the seriousness of the missions and the bravery required to fly them, the pilots, I’ve been told, enjoyed the job. Marine General John Hudson, a friend who flew the RF-8U with the Navy unit tasked with photographing the missile sites, recalls: “We’d ingress at a specific point on the coast and would stay at the treetops at 480 knots [552 mph]. We’d pop up to 1,000 feet to go over the targets. We were flying like every kid thinks he wants to fly. Eight miles a minute.” John went on to fly another fast airplane, the McDonnell F-4B, on 308 combat missions in Vietnam.
As the superpowers negotiated, the Crusaders and Voodoos continued to fly and brought back the evidence a troubled world was waiting for: photos of Soviet missile sites being dismantled.
J.R. Dailey is the Director of the National Air and Space Museum.