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The Making of a Fighter Pilot
Of those who flew photo missions over Cuba, Capt Ecker was probably the only one in his squadron with combat experience. Typical of the origins of many Naval Aviators of his era, he was caught up in the patriotic desire to serve his country after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. The tragic event gave him a chance to fulfill a dream, to become a carrier fighter pilot. Capt Ecker writes what it was like to fly a mission to recover a downed pilot, hear that his carrier, USS Intrepid (CV-11), had been damaged by a kamikaze, and his journey around the Pacific trying to get back to his squadron and ship.
Eyes of the Fleet
A brief historical account of the US Navy's progression from a photographer hanging out the open hatch of a propeller driven aeroplane to jets, with computer-controlled cameras, provides insight into the capabilities of the RF-8A Crusader and its camera systems. A discussion of early covert photo missions over Cuba, including the failed Bay of Pigs Invasion in April 1961, and secret surveillance by US Navy Crusaders describes the growing interest and dependence on photographic intelligence to monitor the military build-up in Cuba.
The Military Build-Up in Cuba
This chapter discusses the prelude to the Cuban Missile Crisis, which began in mid-1962 with the Soviets providing defensive and offensive weapons, including nuclear-tipped medium and intermediate-range missiles, to Cuba. Recently declassified documents are used to describe the intelligence efforts that monitored the build-up and the subsequent increase in U-2 missions during the September-October 1962 period. The various impediments to the U-2 flights are discussed at length, these motivating the struggle of the intelligence agencies to obtain low-level photography to provide details that the U-2 was not capable of. Finally, Capt Ecker colourfully describes how he was initially told that his squadron might be utilised in ‘something big' happening in Cuba.
The Cuban Crisis Begins - 16-22 October 1962
The 13 days of the crisis began on 16 October 1962, when President Kennedy was informed of the U-2 photographic intelligence proving that nuclear missile sites were under construction in Cuba. A detailed discussion of that intelligence, and the reaction to it, along with the critical techniques of photographic interpretation help the reader assess the strengths and weaknesses of the U-2 photos. With the CIA's recommendation that the US Navy had the best low-level photographic capabilities, the chief of naval operations was authorised to issue the order (Operation Blue Moon) to VFP-62 to prepare for missions over Cuba. This chapter gives a day-by-day accounting of the rapid progress being made on the missile sites, now including intermediate-range ballistic missiles, capable of hitting most important targets in the Western Hemisphere.
The daily intelligence briefings to the president's Executive Committee of the Security Council (ExComm), resulted in mounting pressure on President Kennedy to authorise an air strike against the missile sites and MiG bases, followed by an invasion of Cuba.
The chapter culminates with the president's television address on 22 October 1962, announcing the presence of the missiles, and his determination for their removal. He announced his authorisation for a naval quarantine (blockade) of Cuba and placing of all forces at DEFCON-3 (defence condition). This in turn saw both nuclear superpowers position themselves on a war footing, with the worldwide fear that events would spiral out of control and end in general nuclear war. The next morning ‘Fightin' Photo' would be flying at treetop level over Castro's Cuba on the first Blue Moon missions.
Executing the Mission - 23 October 1962
On 23 October, six VFP-62 sorties were conducted over various missile targets in Cuba. Michael Dobbs writes, ‘The first hand-eyewitness accounts of the pilots, and the other members of the squadron, are particularly valuable'. This is evidenced by Capt Ecker's colourful and detailed description of his mission, including an encounter with a dangerous storm on his way back to base. This mission was portrayed in the movie Thirteen Days. Also discussed are personal accounts of the preparation and difficulties the US Navy experienced getting the information necessary to develop flight plans, and the flight strategies that pilots used to avoid surface-to-air (SAM) missiles. Other pilot narratives supplement our understanding of the missions.
Upon return from his mission, Capt Ecker never climbed out of his aircraft, as he was immediately ordered to Washington, DC to give a personal account of his mission to the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the various intelligence agencies. This episode was also portrayed in Thirteen Days. At times humorous, this account emphasises the nervousness and interest in the first low-level photo missions.
The Air Force Gets Its Chance - 24 October 1962
Little known to those who read the history of the crisis was the controversial competition between the US Navy and the US Air Force. This discussion illustrates how the Air Force failed miserably on its first mission, and how their RF-101 Voodoos had to be fitted with US Navy cameras to meet their mission requirements. While receiving most of the publicity during the crisis, the Air Force's failures are finally disclosed. This chapter examines the RF-101, and how the Air Force had to adjust its tactics for the Cuban missions.
VFP-62's 23 October photos were reaching the intelligence agencies in Washington, DC, and received high praise. Even laymen could identify support vehicles, missile preparation tents, launchers and even frightened soldiers running from the low-flying jets.
Confrontation at the UN - 25 October 1962
Soviet denials of offensive weapons in Cuba were finally confronted at the United Nations Security Council on 25 October. Ambassador Adlai Stevenson's eviscerating presentation of the photographic evidence, both U-2 and RF-8A, cements support for the American strategy for the removal of the missiles. The importance of the photographs was best described by DeWitt S Coop; ‘No other proof could have been more irrefutable, and no other proof would have been more acceptable to many among ourselves, our allies and, of course, those unsympathetic to us'.
The Marines Join Blue Moon - 25 October 1962
Marine reconnaissance squadron VMCJ-2 augmented the VFP-62 missions. Its little-known contribution is highlighted with mission accounts from Marine pilots and the humorous over-reach of Marines secretly painting their Playboy squadron logo on US Navy RF-8As and US Air Force F-104s. Personal accounts from Marine pilots provide the reader with insights into the challenges and experiences of those dangerous missions, when anti-aircraft fire was frequently encountered.
The Crisis Mounts - 25-29 October 1962
25-29 October were very dangerous days. With many of the missile sites reaching full operational capability, the USAF's Strategic Air Command (SAC) was placed at DEFCON-2 for the first time in its history. The chapter documents VFP-62 pilots' discovery of the existence of tactical nuclear weapons, previously unknown to US commanders, ready for an American invasion, a U-2 straying over the Soviet Union, causing Russian and American fighters to scramble, and low-level reconnaissance aeroplanes experiencing increased anti-aircraft fire. President Kennedy and his advisers wrestled with a response to Soviet proposals for ending the crisis, while the military prepared for an air attack and invasion. Complicating events was the shootdown of a U-2, killing the pilot, over Cuba, and finally Khrushchev's acceptance of a US proposal for the removal of the missiles and other offensive weapons. Numerous pilot accounts of their increasingly dangerous missions heighten the sense of excitement.
Unarmed, Unescorted and Unafraid
Expressions of love and respect for the Crusader opens a full discussion of this marvelous fighter's capabilities. Pilots describe how it was supremely suited for the reconnaissance mission. Personal accounts of the fighter protection for the RF-8s that was restricted to offshore operations only provides colourful descriptions of how the unarmed photo-aeroplanes were escorted to and from Cuba, but had to go ‘feet dry' alone. Also discussed is the Soviet fighter squadrons' experience of being transported to Cuba, and their frustration with constant American overflights - at times down the runways of their bases, flaunting their ability to do so. A VFP-62 pilot describes how he struck a large bird at low level, along with descriptions of his two ejection experiences from the RF-8A.
Night Photo Missions Over ‘Gitmo'
Night photo missions over Cuba were proposed but never authorized by President Kennedy, except on two occasions when two VFP-62 sorties from the carrier USS Enterprise (CVAN-65) were conducted over Guantanamo naval base to investigate suspicious activity at the base boundary. The exploding bursts of photo flares from the streaking jet caused the uninformed Marine guards to fear a Cuban attack.
Verifying the Removal of the Missiles - November 1962
Blue Moon missions in November 1962 were conducted to monitor the removal of the missiles. The missions remained dangerous, for a disgruntled Fidel Castro commanded his forces to shoot down any intruding aircraft. The psychological intimidation of the low-flying jets placed pressure on the Soviets to honour their commitments. Soviet frustration vented with MiG-21s being ordered to attack two RF-8As. This encounter is told by VFP-62 pilot Lt Cdr Tad Riley, the Russian pilot of the MiG and the chief of naval operations.
Medals and Commendations
Following the crisis, VFP-62 was awarded the praise of a grateful president. Capt Ecker describes these accolades in great detail. President Kennedy personally presented the Navy Unit Commendation to VFP-62, while Gen Curtis LeMay, head of SAC, sat in his car as other dignitaries paid tribute to the US Navy squadron. Sixteen Distinguished Flying Crosses were awarded to VFP-62 and VMCJ-2 pilots. The Florida Times, dated 30 November 1962 wrote, ‘It would take a lot of research to find a squadron on active duty that has as many Distinguished Flying Cross winner's.
Thirteen Days - the Movie
Hollywood's film of the Cuban Missile Crisis, although excellent in many respects, has its critics, and is still shown frequently in the United States. An analysis provides the movie's successes and failures. Capt Ecker describes his consultation on the segments relating to VFP-62 and concludes with Mrs Kit Ecker's description of the movie's debut and banquet in Hollywood, where the Eckers met the producers and cast, including superstar Kevin Costner, who played presidential adviser Kenny O'Donnell. Also included is material from the person in charge of creating portions of the special effects that were so important in showing the first missions of VFP-62, as well as Adm Paul Gillcrist's account of the filming of Philippine F-8s (by then the only ones available in the world) to represent the VFP-62 flightline preparing for missions over Cuba.
‘Hooligans in the Sky'
The title for this chapter was derived from Anastas I Mikoyan's sarcastic description of US reconnaissance activities over Cuba. This concluding chapter discusses the Soviet and Cuban aversion to the reconnaissance intrusions of Cuban airspace. A strong summary supports the claim that VFP-62's photography directly supported the peaceful outcome of the crisis. President Kennedy's resistance to his civilian and military advisors' desire to attack Cuba was made easier by the daily surveillance of the missile sites. The successes and failures of intelligence during the crisis are critiqued, along with a discussion of American monitoring of Cuba and its attempts to overthrow the Castro regime during 1963. A final VFP-62 mission in June 1963, by Capt Ecker, was authorised by the president to fulfill intelligence requirements the U-2 missions could not provide.
In 1963, Fidel Castro's attempted to arrive at secret accommodations with the United States but failed due to the anti-communist mood in the US and the ever-increasing spectre of US involvement in Vietnam.
A full discussion of the aftermath of the Cuban crisis summarises the implications and importance of the most dangerous confrontation in the Cold War.
With a growing need for reconnaissance in Vietnam, primarily resourced by VFP-63, the West Coast photo-squadron, VFP-62 was disestablished in 1968 and its RF-8s were used to replace combat losses as the war increased in intensity.
- Address by President John F Kennedy, 23 October 1962
- President Kennedy's Remarks Upon Presenting Unit Citations, 26 November 1962
- VFP-62 Recipients of the Navy Unit Commendation
- Maps of the mission areas