When Air Force One Evaded MiG Fighters

One can only imagine what the MiG pilots thought.

On June 24, 1981, Ronald Reagan was the presidential passenger on the VC-137 taking off from Kelly Air Force Base, San Antonio. Now on display in the Reagan library, the aircraft flew seven presidents. (NARA)
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When is the last time a welcoming committee created an international incident? The last time it happened in the air was in 1974, when President Richard Nixon paid a visit to Syrian president Hafez al-Assad (father of Syria’s current president). As Air Force One entered Syrian airspace, four camouflaged MiG fighters joined up on the VC-137’s wings. White House officials awaiting the president’s arrival in Damascus told UPI reporters that they had been informed of the Syrian military’s plan to send honor escorts for Air Force One, but the officials didn’t bother to pass the information along to Air Force One pilot Colonel Ralph D. Albertazzie, who, fearing attack, banked violently right. For the next seven minutes, Albertazzie flew a series of evasive maneuvers, including a steep dive.

Remembering the incident years later to reporter Kenneth Walsh, author of Air Force One: A History of the Presidents and Their Planes, CNN political analyst David Gergen, at the time a Nixon aide who was on Air Force One, said he wondered if the passengers would survive. He and others had been thrown to the floor. Finally, Albertazzie received word from Damascus air traffic control that the MiGs were just being friendly. Nixon never spoke publicly about the incident, but later, according to Walsh, confided to a friend that it had scared him.

The aircraft Albertazzie flew that day, a modified version of the Boeing 707, had aerobatics in its genes. Nineteen years earlier during a demonstration for prospective customers, Boeing test pilot Alvin M. “Tex” Johnston became famous for barrel-rolling the 707 prototype.

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