Another U2 Spy Plane Incident
On October 27, 1962, just as the Cuban Missile Crisis was reaching its boiling point, an American U-2 spy plane took off from Alaska en route to a routine reconnaissance mission near the North Pole. Pilot Charles Maultsby was supposed to use celestial navigation to find his way, but halfway through the trip his view of the night sky became hopelessly obscured by the glow of the aurora borealis, or “northern lights.” With no visual markers to guide him, Maultsby soon drifted far off course and inadvertently crossed the border into the Soviet Union.
Because the situation in Cuba still rested on a knife-edge, Maultsby’s accidental detour carried possibly catastrophic consequences. Worried the U-2 could be a nuclear bomber, the Soviets scrambled several MiG fighter jets and sent them on a course to destroy the intruding aircraft. The Air Force responded by dispatching two F-102 fighters armed with nuclear-tipped missiles to shepherd Maultsby back to Alaska. Any confrontation between the two groups of aircraft could have potentially ended in all-out war, but Maultsby managed to glide his U-2—which had long since run out of fuel—out of Soviet airspace before he could be intercepted. Having averted disaster on two fronts, President John F. Kennedy and Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev would find a peaceful resolution to the Cuban Missile Crisis the following day.