John I. Hudson was a 30-year old Marine captain when he flew the Vought RF-8A Crusader on eight photo-reconnaissance runs over Cuba from May 1962 to June 1963. He went on to fly the McDonnell F-4B on 308 combat missions in Vietnam, and retired in 1989 as a lieutenant general after 35 years in the Corps. Now a commissioner for the Arizona Power Authority in Yuma, Hudson spoke to Executive Editor Paul Hoversten about his role in the Cuban Missile Crisis.
Air & Space: What was a typical mission over Cuba like?
Hudson: There were a number of probable targets that had been located by the U-2, and [U.S. intelligence analysts] wanted to know what specifically was there. So we’d work out a route. You’re flying at 480 knots, which is eight miles a minute. You can’t navigate except by time, heading, and distance. We’d have anywhere between two and four targets on our route. So we’d take off from Key West in radio silence, on a specific heading for a point of ingress. Whether we hit that point or were 400 or 500 yards or so in either direction didn’t really matter. We’d look for some prominent feature that was supposed to be there, and if we were a little off, we’d correct from that and fly to our first target. We were literally feet off the water and the treetops. We’d go to our first target, maintaining speed at 480. We knew how many minutes it should take us to get to the target, and about 15 seconds before arriving, we’d pop up to 1,000 feet where we could see a little bit and have time to make a hard bank to get right over the target, flip our cameras to the max rate, and run over the target. Then it was cameras off, and back down to the trees, with a hard turn to the new target.
Our targets were generally five minutes or so apart. When we would pop up, maybe the target would be a couple hundred yards away. Then we would egress [the island] at that same low altitude. When we got over the water, we had a fighter CAP [combat air patrol] waiting for us. We would call “feet wet,” indicating we were over the water. After we got 10 or 12 miles out, we’d climb to 35,000 feet, then go to NAS Jacksonville, because that’s where the Navy photo lab was located.
How long would a mission last?
Close to an hour, from takeoff to landing. We’d spend about 12 to 15 minutes over the island, 20 at the very max. The target sites wouldn’t be more than at most a quarter-mile wide, so you’re over that site for just a couple of seconds.
You were looking specifically for Soviet missiles?
We were, and some of the sites we saw were SAM [surface-to-air missile] sites. But we didn’t know what kind of sites they were until we looked at the film, because at that speed and altitude, while you could see there was something in the jungle other than trees, you didn’t have any time to look at it. You were too darn busy. When we landed at Jacksonville, we’d be met by photo techs who had those camera bays open, had the film cans out, and were gone before we were even unstrapped and out of the plane.
Did you get fired on?
Yes, but not with missiles. We saw flak puffs in our rear-view mirrors, but we didn’t start taking fire until maybe the second or third flight. We flew the same targets, but we never flew the same ingress point or egress point. We never flew the same route. We would mix the targets up. There was no time to train radar on us, because we weren’t at 1,000 feet long enough. [The Cubans] were firing anti-aircraft guns and maybe small arms, but it all was behind us. We were kids having fun, and getting shot at was a big kick.
It doesn’t sound like the Cubans were good shots.
They might have been if we’d given them a good target.
What’s the story behind the dead chickens stenciled on the Crusader’s fuselage to represent completed flights over Cuba?
When [Fidel Castro] went to the U.N. [in September 1960], he was paranoid that someone would poison him if he ate food prepared by anyone outside his circle. So they actually cooked chickens in his hotel suite, and there was a big deal at that time about Fidel having the chickens butchered and cooked in his hotel suite. So that’s where that came from.
Was there any coordination between the Crusader pilots and the Air Force F-101 Voodoo pilots, who also flew low-level reconnaissance over Cuba?
We never saw any Voodoos. They were flying, I think, out of some place like Tyndall [Air Force Base, near Panama City, Florida], but they weren’t down at Key West. I don’t think we flew on the same days, or if we did, we didn’t fly at the same time. The only Air Force that was at Key West were F-104s that arrived about mid-way through our program to be our fighter escorts because the Marines had been doing that with F-8s out of Beaufort, South Carolina. Frankly, we saw the -104s, but we never had them join on us after we came out [from Cuba]. We would be in radio contact with them.
Did your Cuban experience help prepare you for flying the F-4 in Vietnam?
No, it was totally different. The F-4 was a different kind of airplane. There are two people in it. You had a guy in the back that was your radar intercept officer that helped with navigation and some communications. And the mission was totally different. In Vietnam, our missions varied from strategic kind of bombing in weather that was so bad you couldn’t do anything else, and most of our day missions were close air support for either Army or Marine ground forces.
You weren’t flying low and fast in Vietnam?
No. As low as you would get on a mission would be a glide bomb with a 10-degree slope, and while you’re going fairly fast, you’re dropping ordnance. Mostly these would be heavier bombs, and you’d have to release them at 2,500 to 3,000 feet and be out by around 1,500 feet or you’d get some of your own arrows in your rear. The shrapnel comes up that high.