Spyplanes, Spyships, & Seizures:
a deadly dance of dark suspicion
& dangerous curiosity

Copyright 2001, 2003, 2004
Richard Harris
photos courtesy of the U.S. Department of Defense, generally
Excerpts previously published by Aero News Network ( www.aero-news.net ) and In Flight USA

The emergency landing of an American EP-3 Aries spyplane, in China, March 31, 2001 (described at the end of this story) opened up the book on a lot of historical "precedents," where America and other nations lost or gathered aircraft and ships in the endless game of cat-and-mouse that is a part of spying along foreign borders (and sometimes over them).  Here are a few key events and milestones in spycraft operations, attacks on suspect craft, and seizures of aircraft, ships and crews, which have kept the battle for information edgy, dangerous and dramatic:

1944:    U.S. B-29's confiscated by Russia.   During World War II, in operations against Japan, some U.S. Boeing B-29 Superfortress bombers landed in Eastern Russia, after overflying Japan. The world's's most advanced bomber in 1944, the Boeing B-29 Superfortress. Though Russia was officially a U.S. ally in the war, Russia impounded the B-29's, and -- though returning their crews -- refused to return the aircraft.  Instead, Russian plane-maker Tupolev disassembled the 76,000-part B-29's -- the war's most advanced bomber -- and copied them, to build a virtually-identical Russian bomber, the Tu-4 (NATO code-named "Bull").

It became the chief Soviet postwar bomber for nearly a decade.  At the same time, Boeing built an improved version of the B-29, the B-50 Superfortress, with the resulting irony that each nation's greatest threat to the other -- in the early postwar "Cold War" years -- was from nuclear bombers built from the same original design:  the Boeing B-29. Exacerbating the irony, in the mid-1950's the Soviets gave several TU-4's to Communist China, where they continued to serve for many more years -- as China's chief long-range, strategic heavy bomber.

1953-1954:       Korean War pilots shot down over China. During the Korean War, the Boeing B-29 Superfortress bomber an American B-29 Superfortress bomber, with 14 American servicemen aboard, was shot down when it apparently strayed over China's border with North Korea. The servicemen were captured, and -- following the Quemoy and Matsu crisis -- China announced plans to try them as spies (with the implicit threat of execution), despite the fact that all but two had been in uniform. All were given lengthy prison sentences.

This outraged the American public, already angry with China over its support of North Korea -- with members of Congress and virtually the entire Pentagon leadership calling for nuclear war against China. It was the sixth time in a year that the entire Joint Chiefs of Staff and the National Security Council had urged President Eisenhower to use nuclear weapons. Eisenhower stood firm against all his advisers, and Washington was eventually able to negotiate the airmen's release.

1960:     The U-2 Incident;  Russia.  At the height of the Cold War, the U.S. Air Force and U.S. Navy were over-flying the Soviet Union (Communist Russia and its border colonies) -- frantically trying to discern Soviet military developments.

At first the tightly-closed Communist nation was ill-equipped to combat the flying spies. Soviet defenses were concentrated around its few major cities, and its fighters had limited range, speed and altitude capabilities. Still, many of the American spyplanes were intercepted and shot down. Generally speaking, neither government publicly acknowledged these hot flashes of the Cold War, and the outside world was largely unaware, as were most of the people in their own countries. a B-29, desginated as a 'WB-29' -- 'weather plane' -- assigned to gather samples of air around Siberia's borders, actually looking for traces of fallout from Soviet nuclear tests.

At first, the propellor-driven Boeing B-29 Superfortress bombers (re-labeled "RB-29" for "Reconnaissance") were used, mostly -- due to their long range, high altitude, substantial speed, defensive armament, and enormous payload (needed for the bulky cameras and electronics of early spy flights).

But as the Soviets developed fast, well-armed jet fighters which could shoot them down (and did), the RB-29's were gradually replaced by the faster, higher-flying jet-powered Boeing RB-47 Stratojet (shown at left), also a modified bomber.

The overflights quite unnerving to the Soviet Union -- a nation who had recently lost one-tenth of its people to a surprise invasion by the Nazis -- especially since American overflights were by planes derived from, and visually identical to, U.S. nuclear strategic bombers. Soviet defenses, particularly fighter development, evolved rapidly to counter the U.S. intruders. In time, even the 600-mph Stratojets could not outrun, nor outclimb, the latest Soviet fighters.

The U.S. government finally decided the solution was a "non-military" reconnaissance plane, designed from the start for that purpose:   the Lockheed U-2 -- a high-flying reconnaissance plane stripped of all identification, and assigned to the CIA. The high-flying U-2 recon jet The long-winged U-2's, powered by a single jet engine, were designed to fly over 60,000 feet up (12 miles high, on the edge of space; U-2 pilots wore pressurized suits like astronauts).  Designed to fly higher than any known jet fighter or anti-aircraft missile, they would fly over Soviet territory with impunity.  The U-2's soon became America's chief resource for hard data on Soviet military developments.

Pilot Francis Gary Powers, on the longest U-2 overflight mission ever, was to fly a zig-zagging course across the entire Soviet Union, south to north.  The key object was to photograph suspected new Soviet intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM's), capable of striking the U.S. He took off May 1, 1960 -- "May Day" -- the international holiday of Communists. About one-third of the way through his twisting, 3,788-mile Turkey-to-Norway overflight, an explosion (whether an engine failure or a Soviet missile was never known outside the USSR) blew the U-2 out of the sky.  Powers successfully parachuted to Soviet soil, and was promptly captured.
Khrushchev views U-2 wreckage

The Soviets displayed the captured plane to the world, while the U.S. lamely claimed it was only a weather-research plane that had strayed off course -- way off course. Eventually President Eisenhower admitted the obvious, and defended his actions as "necessary." Though pilot Powers was treated civilly by his Russian captors, he was tried as a spy (with the implicit risk of a death sentence) in a public show trial.  The incident gave Soviet Premier Nikita Khruschchev a chance to humiliate President Eisenhower just before their Paris summit meeting, and greatly embarrassed the Eisenhower administration at home -- while Ike's vice president, Richard Nixon, was running for President.  Nixon was narrowly defeated by his opponent, Senator John F. Kennedy.

(Russia, a few years later, traded the imprisoned Powers to the U.S. for a captured Russian spy, Rudolf Abel. Powers returned to mixed appreciation, with many damning him for having confessed the obvious at his trial, and many others damning him for not having chosen suicide over capture. The CIA discharged him, but secretly funded his employment at Lockheed, as a U-2 test pilot, until he published a book about his experiences. After years of difficulty finding work, Powers became a prominent Los Angeles newscaster/pilot, and died in 1977 when his newscopter crashed.)

1962:    U-2 shot down; Cuban Missile Crisis.  U-2 During the Cuban Missile Crisis -- when the Soviet Union attempted to place nuclear-tipped, intermediate-range ballistic missiles in Cuba, just off American shores -- the U-2 was again used to discern Soviet developments.  One of the two U.S. Air Force U-2 pilots who first photographed proof of the missiles deployment -- Major Rudolf Anderson, Jr. -- was shot down during one of his overflights by a Soviet missile.  1960's -- Cuba- an aerial view of the San Cristobal medium-range ballistic missile launch site number two. November 1, 1962 (U.S. Air Force Photo)

The event heightened tensions, as each side faced the other with an arsenal of nuclear weapons poised to annihilate millions of each others' men, women and children.  Some cabinet members and belligerent military leaders, particularly U.S. Air Force chief of staff Gen. Curtiss LeMay, urged war -- and with the loss of Anderson, the military's demands for attack grew passionate.  Kennedy held his ground, and settled the matter with a naval blockade of Cuba, until the missiles were withdrawn, peacefully.

The president's brother, Attorney General Robert Kennedy, wrote in his memoirs that the President "talked a lot about Major Anderson, and how it is always the brave and best who die.  The politicians and officials sit at home pontificating about great principles, and issues, make decisions, and dine with their wives and families, while the brave and the young die."

The day Soviet Premier Khruschchev ordered the withdrawal of Soviet missiles from Cuba, as the cabinet members departed the oval office, his brother looked back and saw President Kennedy sitting down at his desk to write a private letter to Major Anderson's widow.

1967:     Israel attacks U.S.S. Liberty in 6-Day War.  Egypt, Syria and Jordan began massing troops along the borders with Israel, in an apparent move to invade the Zionist nation, and return it to the Palestinians.  Israel decided to strike first.  In an apparent attempt to conceal its initiation of hostilities, Israel targeted the U.S.S. Liberty, an American spy ship loitering in international waters between Israel and Egypt.

The Liberty, was among the first targets of a wave of Israeli fighters and bombers attacking Arab targets, signaling the outbreak of the Six-Day War -- in which Israel seized control of Gaza and the West Bank of the Jordan River.

Several crewmen were killed and injured, in a series of sea and air attacks lasting over an hour -- despite repeated radio calls from the ship to the attackers and others.  Israel lamely argued that the U.S. ship was mistaken for an enemy vessel.

The Liberty eventually limped back to port in Malta, listing to starboard from a hole blasted by a torpedo (see close-up picture) and punctured throughout with holes from Israeli cannon and machine-gun fire.

1968:    The U.S.S. Pueblo;  North Korea.   North Korean gunboats harassed, then attacked and seized the American spy ship, U.S.S. Pueblo, whose captain, Cmdr. Lloyd Bucher, claimed he'd been sailing outside the 12-mile territorial limit (which evidence later supported); the North Koreans claimed otherwise.

For over an hour, the crew frantically tried -- unsuccessfully -- to destroy its classified documents and equipment (using axes and hand-grenades, seriously injuring themselves in the process), while radioing for American help that never came.

The 82 surviving crewmembers were held captive, paraded in front of international media (as shown at left, Bucher standing), interrogated and beaten until "confessions" were extracted by North Korean authorities.  They were eventually released, exactly 11 months later, Dec. 23, 1968.

EC-121 (U.S. Air Force photo) 1969:    EC-121 spy plane shot down by North Korea.  Over international waters in the Sea of Japan, near the North Korean coast, an unarmed U.S. Navy Lockheed EC-121 Warning Star spyplane (shown at right; a modified Lockheed Constellation 4-prop airliner) was shot down by North Korean fighters, 90 miles southeast of North Korea -- closer, actually, to American ally South Korea.

The April 14 incident killed all 31 servicemen aboard.  This incident, along with the preceding Pueblo incident, led to a series of Congressional investigations of U.S. surveillance practices.

1976:    Stolen MiG-25 lands in Japan:  A Soviet military pilot defected to the West, fleeing to Japan in his MiG-25 fighter jet.  The Mach-3 jet (NATO designation "Foxbat")  was a mystery craft to the Western powers, particularly the U.S., who were eager to examine the latest, "most advanced" Soviet fighter.  The Defense Department had long used the mystery of the MiG-25 as a "boogeyman" to scare the government into funding advanced U.S. weaponry.

The Russian Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-25 interceptor fighter was the subject of NATO military hysteria, until one actually fell into U.S. hands -- and turned out to be a turkey. From the Air Force Times Library On September 6, Russian pilot, Lt. Viktor Belenko, landed his MiG-25 fighter (NATO designation "Foxbat" shown below) at an airfield near Hakodate, on Japan's northern island of Hokkaido, and asked for asylum, and it was temporarily granted.  The Soviet government furiously demanded the prompt return of their stolen plane, and the pilot who took it.  And when Japan refused, the Russian Navy, in retaliation, captured Japanese fishing boats and imprisoned their crews, while Soviet military craft menaced Japanese military craft over international waters.

The condescending bluster and arrogant challenges of the Soviets only insulted the Japanese -- who dug their heels in more forcefully, and welcomed U.S. requests to examine the aircraft. Then- U.S.-Defense-Secretary, Donald Rumsfeld (who, ironically, is now again  the Secretary of Defense) admitted "we wanted the plane. We wanted metal samples; to fly it, take it apart, then fly it again." He got his wish.  The Japanese government allowed the U.S. to disassemble the plane, stuff it in a giant C-5A Galaxy transport, and fly it to a Japanese airbase near Tokyo for a thorough disassembly and inspection. Two months later, it was shipped back to the Russians in pieces.

What was expected to be an intelligence bonanza turned into an embarrassment for the U.S. Defense Department.  The MiG's crude, bulky, stainless-steel construction, poor aerodynamic qualities, limited weapons capacity, short range and utterly archaic electronics discredited Defense Department paranoia over the new aircraft, and over Soviet military technology, generally.

The pilot, Lt. Belenko defected to the United States, and spent months answering questions for the Defense Department and the CIA.

1970's-1980's:  U.S. submarines in Soviet waters.  In a super-secret program (most famously labeled "HOLYSTONE"), U.S. submarines spied on the Soviet Union, by sailing submerged into Soviet waters, and sometimes even up Soviet rivers -- even tapping Soviet undersea cables.   The program "surfaced" during the "Year of Intelligence" (1975), among the many revelations (first made by reporter Seymour Hersh) about U.S. intellegence operations run amok (many of them subverting U.S. law) which ultimately sparked Congressional investigations.

The intruder-submarines story broke with Seymour Hersh's front page articles in the New York Times, May 25, 1975 and July 6, 1975, including the revelation that one of the subs had actually collided with a Soviet surface ship March 31, 1971. But the Navy kept rolling the dice, intruding into Soviet waters -- until the discovery of the Walker family spy ring, inside the U.S. Navy, which had tipped off the Soviets about key details of this and many other U.S. naval spy operations. That disaster reportedly brought the program to a screeching halt.

Korean Air Lines 747 (Korean Air Lines photo)
The RC-135RJ aerial reconnaisance aircraft, derived from the Boeing KC-135 tanker and 707 jetliner

Korean Air Lines
Boeing 747

EC-135 / RC-135

1983:    South Korean 747 airliner shot down by Soviet fighters.  On September 1, Korean Air Lines Flight 007, a Boeing 747 with over 200 people aboard, was blasted out of the sky in the night, killing all aboard (including an American Congressman) after straying into Soviet Airspace near the Kamchatka Peninsula, a Soviet territory on the eastern edge of Russia, which served as a key Soviet miitary testing ground.

The peninsula had regularly been stalked by American spy planes, including RC-135 (modified Boeing 707 airliners) surveillance aircraft, particularly during recent sensitive Soviet missile tests.  Soviet authorities claimed that the trespassing South Korean 747 airliner had been mistaken, in the murky skies, for an American RC-135 spy plane.  

The incident fueled cold war tensions, and rattled the Soviet military establishment, severely discrediting it, and setting the stage for later shakeups and marginalizing of Soviet military leadership which would help bring about the weakening of Soviet Communism.

1992:     U.S. EC-130 attacked by Peru.  in April, a U.S.
EC-130 Hercules -- electronic reconnaisance variant of the C-130 transport
Lockheed EC-130 spyplane, a modified C-130 Hercules 4-prop transport, purportedly engaged in a drug-war mission, was attacked by Peruvian fighter aircraft over waters near Peru, killing one crewman and injuring others.  The plane landed safely in a field in northern Peru, near the border with Ecuador.  The crew was returned to the U.S.

Peru claimed that the U.S. plane was 300 miles off its officially-claimed course when attacked.  At the time (as often) there were heightened military tensions between Peru and Ecuador, who had been in territorial battles over sea rights. Further, the Peruvian government, in a leadership crisis, had just suspended its constitution.


HAINAN ISLAND, China--The downed EP-3 Aries, minus its nose and parts of some propeller blades, at Lingshui Airfield June 18. U.S. Pacific Command began operations June 13 to return the damaged U.S. Navy EP-3 surveillance plane to the United States. (Photo courtesy of Lockheed Martin Aeronautics Co.)

2001:  EP-3 spyplane forced down in China:  March 31, 2001, an American EP-3 electronic-sensing spyplane (a modified U.S. Navy P-3 Orion, which, in turn, was a modified Lockheed Electra turboprop airliner) was patrolling off the coast of China, in international airspace over the South China Sea.

As American planes had done with Communist spyplanes, many times before, Chinese fighter pilots were routinely, even recklessly, harassing  the lumbering, four-prop airliner/spyplane.  The Chinese pilot, Wong Wei (pronounced "Wong Way," no kidding), tried to zoom up right in front of the EP-3 from below, HAINAN ISLAND, China--The downed EP-3 Aries, minus its nose and parts of some propeller blades, at Lingshui Airfield June 18. U.S. Pacific Command began operations June 13 to return the damaged U.S. Navy EP-3 surveillance plane to the United States. a common fighter-pilot spyplane-harassment stunt, practiced on both sides. But Wei fell short of his goal, and his Shenyang F-8 fighter jet collided with the EP-3, destroying the fighter, and killing Wei, while shattering the spyplane's propellers and ripping off its giant nose radome.

Satellite photo of EP-3 on Hainan island. CNN photo The badly damaged airplane was barely controllable, as 250-mph winds shot into the cabin through the ruptured forward bulkhead.  The crew was forced to land at the only nearby landing strip:  a military strip on China's big Hainan island. (The satelitte photo at right shows the EP-3 on the ramp in Hainan, with Chinese military trucks lined up off its left wing).  The Chinese government promptly "detained" the crew, for a few weeks, while it sent a squadron of technicians and engineers to disassemble and strip the EP-3, and examine its super-secret spy gear. Click here for detailed photos showing damage. (Note the damaged aircraft, on Lingshui airfield, Hainan, China -- minus radome "nose-bowl" and missing outer portion of left-most prop blade, at picture's far right. (Photo courtesy of Lockheed Martin Aeronautics Co., with more viewable on U.S. Pacific Command / Department of Defense website at )

Although the American government vigorously protested, and blamed the fighter pilot's malicious actions, China portrayed him as having been "attacked" by the EP-3, claiming the plane turned into him.  The Chinese public, increasingly resentful of America over various international incidents, was easily whipped into a frenzy of America-cursing over the event. U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, whose expropriation of a Russian MiG-25 under the first President George (H.W.) Bush left him with little defense when he faced a Chinese confiscation of an American EP-3 while he served as Defense Secretary for the second President George (

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld issued some protests of  the confiscation and disassembly of the EP-3 -- but they rang rather hollow in light of his own similar actions with the stolen Russian MiG-25, when he'd been U.S. Defense Secretary a generation earlier.

The Navy released a videotape shot by a EP-3 crew on a previous flight showing how recklessly close that same pilot had routinely come   (within a few yards of the big spyplanes)  in the past -- discrediting the Chinese claims of attack.  Eventually the crew was released, and the plane -- in pieces, stuffed into a Russian transport aircraft -- returned to the U.S., where it was subsequently reassembled and refitted for duty.


On the tense boundaries between adversaries, warplanes become "spyplanes," and spyplanes become "warplanes." On the fearful edge between ignorance and war, the spies and sentries of aerial and ocean-going surveillance keep watch between enemies and suspicious friends, and sometimes just get too close for comfort -- with possible grave consequences for us all.  But wherever powerful people challenge each other, daring people in ships and planes will put it all on the line, for answers.



"EP-3 & China:  Other Cases"
by Richard Harris

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World Almanac:  1955, 1963, 1968, 1969, 1970, 1978, 1982, 1991, 2000
Information Please Almanac:  1979, 1991, 1997

Reader's Digest Almanac:  1969, 1986
CBS News Almanac: 1978