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.