Daily Flight Stories
Historic Wings is pleased to present our daily story celebrating what happened today in aviation history.
Published on April 15, 2013
“Deep Sea 129″, the code name for a reconnaissance flight, took off from the Naval Air Station at Atsugi, Japan, at 6:50 am local time on April 15, 1969, on what should have been a routine reconnaissance mission, known as “Beggar Shadow”. The plane, operated by the US Navy’s Airborne Reconnaissance Squadron One (VQ-1) under the umbrella of the National Security Agency (NSA), was a Lockheed EC-121M Warning Star. The EC-121M was the ELINT version of the Constellation. As usual, that day the plane carried a full crew of 31 men. The aircraft commander was LCDR James Overstreet, USN, a veteran of “Beggar Shadow” missions. The EC-121M’s sides, top and bottom bristled with ELINT antennae of all types, each tuned to intercept and record a different type of enemy radar, communications or other equipment.
The flight route was to first fly north and then back down the coast of North Korea, China, and the Soviet Union, never coming closer than 50 nm from the shore line. Since January 1, 1969, nearly 200 similar “Beggar Shado”w missions had been flown. This averaged to a rate of more than two a day. The mission was so commonplace that it was categorized as “low risk”. Everything changed that day, however.
Six and a half hours into the mission, at 12:37 pm local time, the plane was flying down the North Korean coastline, 70 nm offshore, when the communications technicians on board began to detect an increase in North Korean communications. The EC-121M had no tactical radar of its own to track airborne targets, however, so all the men in the back could do was listen to the increasing frequency and urgency of radio communications. Most of the team in back were all communications experts, including fluent Russian, Korean and Chinese speakers, so they could understand the intent of the controllers. They were blind, however, to the location of any other aircraft, except for relays from the US Army’s Army Security Agency, which, in support of the mission, had a radar facility in South Korea that tracked the North’s air movements. Through the World Wide Military Command and Control System, the Army station was in the loop and actively supporting the mission.
The Army radar operators detected and tracked the take off of a pair of Korean People’s Air Force (KPAF) MiG-17 “Fresco” aircraft. Based on the timing of the launch, they suspected that the flights could have something to do with the presence of the Navy ELINT plane, though initially the headings of the MiGs didn’t show anything unusual. As it was, they were right — the North Koreans were out for blood.
As the ground-based Army radar operators watched, the two MiG-17s flew a routine course, heading eastward to the coast line and flying along the shoreline. About 20 minutes later at 1:00 pm local time, the EC-121M filed a routine position report through the normal channels. Communications with the EC-121 were virtually continuous. In the event, flights of North Korean aircraft, so long as they remained over or near North Korea, were usually welcomed, at least from a SIGINT and ELINT perspective. When they flew, it meant that various communications and radar systems that might otherwise have been idle were active and, therefore, being recorded for later analysis.
At 1:22 pm, however, the Army’s radar operators lost track of the two MiG-17s. Most likely, the planes had descended down low over the ocean, thus disappearing into surface reflections that could confound even the more advanced radar systems of the late 1960s. Maybe they were returning to their base, given that the MiG-17s had a very limited fuel supply. However, at 1:37 pm, the two MiG-17s suddenly reappeared on the Army radar screens. Shockingly, they were on a direct course to intercept Deep Sea 129 and were closing at high speed. With urgency, the Army broadcast a warning message.
At NAS Atsugi, the communications team of VQ-1 that was supporting their plane saw the warning on the World Wide Military Command and Control System network and immediately transmitted a message to LCDR Overstreet in the cockpit of the EC-121M. The message declared a “Condition Three Alert”. This meant that they were to immediately abort the mission and return to base. The message also transmitted that, based on the rapid approach, the North Korean MiGs were likely on orders to attack the plane.
Shootdown and Death
Even as the EC-121M turned to escape back to Japan, the two KPAF MiG-17s rapidly closed the distance. By that point, the MiGs were at full military power and were burning fuel at an extraordinary rate to close the gap and avoid an extended tail chase. The MiG-17s carried the typical heavy armament of that Soviet-built type — each plane had three cannons, including a Nudelman N-37 37mm cannon and two 23mm cannons with 80 rounds per gun. Just a few of those cannon rounds could, if well aimed, bring down the EC-121M. The two MiGs had a closing speed of perhaps 200 mph. Just ten minutes later, at 1:47 pm, the radar units along Japan’s coast and in South Korea recorded the twin blips of the pursuing MiGs as they merged with the single blip of the EC-121M. The planes were at the following position: 41°28’00″N 131°35’00″E. Later analysis of intercepted North Korean and Soviet radar traces confirmed the position exactly.
The situation was desperate. If the North Koreans meant to attack, it wouldn’t be much of a fight, as the American ELINT plane was unarmed and unarmored. LCDR Overstreet and the other 30 members of the flight crew on the EC-121M had no warning of the close proximity of the attackers and, with the limited view from the plane’s cockpit, particularly looking behind, they could do little to evade an attack.
The North Koreans wasted no time in making their attack. Cannon rounds raked the fuselage and wings, destroying the aircraft and killing many on board in the very first seconds of the attack. Despite the extensive damage, it took a full two minutes for the blip that was the EC-121M to finally disappear from the radar scopes. The radar screens showed the EC-121M descending rapidly toward the surface of the sea. Later analysis concluded that most of that time the radar return was from the plane, perhaps in pieces, spinning down to a crash into the ocean after the first attack pass. The ground-based radar operators watched helplessly as the two blips of the MiG-17 fighter planes turned back west to head toward their base.
At the time of the attack, it wasn’t clear if the EC-121M had simply descended in a dive in accordance with established procedures, making an escape. While all indications were that the MiGs had made a successful attack, it was still possible, though unlikely, that the American plane was running along at low level over the waves, perhaps even having eluded the two MiG-17s. It was also possible that the MiGs had intercepted the plane, buzzed it and then turned for home. There was still hope, though most were already thinking the worst.
Ten minutes later, with no word from the plane, it seemed clear to all that the plane had been shot down. The fate of the 31 men on board was unclear, though it was considered virtually impossible for them to bail out of the EC-121M aircraft, given its design. At 2:01 pm, a protective combat air patrol was scrambled from Japan, putting two F-102 fighter jets into the air. The scramble was order, even if it was clearly too late, just in case the EC-121M had somehow survived and was limping home at low altitude.
As it happened, the attack also uncovered flaws in emergency communications systems. The National Security Agency transmitted a FLASH message and then a CRITIC message, relaying word of the attack throughout the system and to the National Military Command Center, as well as to the White House. However, each of these warnings, follow up messages, and confirmations were late being delivered — in one case, a FLASH message, normally requiring no more than 6 minutes to deliver, was received 1 hour and 16 minutes late, far too late to be meaningful.
With no further sign of the EC-121M, an immediate search and rescue effort was mounted. For protection, the SAR aircraft were covered by USAF and US Navy fighter planes. Unexpectedly, two Soviet Navy ships asked to assist in the search. While this seemed suspect, it was soon reasoned that the Soviets were volunteering their efforts not for nefarious purposes after all, but truly in the interest of supporting the rescue since American ships were still more than a day away. Of course, any rescued ELINT crew member would have been a valuable asset for questioning.
Despite the extensive air search that the USAF and USN mounted, at first, nothing was found. Only he following morning did a P-3B Orion of VP-40 spot some wreckage on the surface of the sea. After coordinating with the Soviets, who also sailed to the scene to recover what wreckage could be found, the US Navy and USAF planes guided their ships to the scene. The Soviet Navy crews retrieved some debris, but found no survivors, nor even any bodies. Later, the Soviets turned over all of the debris that they had taken in a mid-ocean rendezvous with an American ship.
When the first American Navy vessels arrived at the scene, they too found and retrieved debris from the crash. They also found two bodies, those of LTJG Joseph R. Ribar, USN, and AT1 Richard E. Sweeney, USN. Sadly, the bodies of the remaining 29 crewmen were never recovered. Some of the debris recovered showed telltale signs of the attack, such as cannon fire damage. Clearly, the North Koreans had fired with devastating accuracy, though it would have been hard to miss the large, lumbering target of the EC-121M out in the middle of a clear blue sky. As no message had been transmitted by the EC-121M informing of an ongoing attack, it seemed likely that the plane had been downed in the first pass when the two MiG-17s roared up from directly behind. Most likely, it was over in a few seconds.
US Response and Final Thoughts
In the wake of the shootdown, the Nixon White House was outraged. Despite palpable anger, a tempered the US response was sent, calling it a matter of “restraint”. The US Military was not ordered to retaliate as this might have escalated the situation. To send a clear message, additional “Beggar Shadow” ELINT missions were resumed just a few days later. These were covered with available fighters in the event that the KPAF tried another interception. Formal protests were made, but these obviously had little impact on the North Koreans. In Pyongyang, the North Koreans were proudly celebrating the event.
Ultimately, the shooting down of Deep Sea 129 was a victory of sorts for North Korea. It also served then — and today — as a clear reminder that the militarism and raw aggression of the North Koreans remains untamed, unpredictable, and unacceptable. Finally, it marked a watershed event for the World Wide Military Command and Control System. Clearly, better coordination and more timely warnings were needed for the next time — rectifying the flaws in the emergency communications system became a top priority in the event that there might be a “next time”.
Sadly, there would be a next time, but that’s another story.
Reds Down U.S. Bomber — read about another loss of a reconnaissance plane, this one shot down by the Soviets just off the coast of the northernmost Japanese island of Hokkaido. Indeed, reconnaissance was a deadly game during the Cold War.
Why did the North Koreans select that flight on that day — April 15, 1969 — to shoot down the American aircraft? What event precipitated the attack?