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The Sciences

How the Aurora Borealis Nearly Started World War III

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By Amy Shira Teitel

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The year was 1962. The Cuban Missile Crisis was at its peak, and it had been only days since President Kennedy learned that the Soviet Union was establishing missile sites in Cuba. The U.S. Air Force was on DEFCON-2. American and Soviet military forces were an order away from launching a nuclear attack. But on Saturday, October 27, it wasn’t a military general or political leader who nearly upended that delicate world balance and set off World War III. It was the aurora borealis.

A Pilot on a Mission

Charles Maultsby was a seasoned fighter pilot. He’d flown F-80 fighters during the Korean War before he was shot down and held as a prisoner of war in China for 22 months. But his current assignment left much to be desired. He was stationed at Eielson Air Force Base in Alaska where the early winter days were short and cold. His missions weren’t any more exciting than his arctic abode: he was flying atmospheric sampling missions in U-2 planes.

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Air Force Captain Charles Maulstby. Credit: National Security Archive. The U-2 was primarily a high-altitude spy plane. Ultra lightweight, it was designed to fly at 70,000 feet and maintain a healthy distance from enemy aircraft. It was also outfitted with a sophisticated camera that could resolve details on the ground, gathering invaluable photoreconnaissance from its formidable cruise altitude. Maultsby’s upper atmospheric sampling missions were reconnaissance missions of a different type. When a nuclear bomb detonates, the resulting cloud of gas and debris floats relatively intact around the planet before it slowly dissipates. Atmospheric sampling missions had pilots fly right into the cloud after a Soviet or Chinese bomb test, collecting the material on special filters. Technicians could learn a lot from the samples – whether the bomb had been detonated on the ground or in the air, where in the country the bomb was detonated, and how advanced the bomb’s trigger and weapons systems were. Maultsby’s mission the morning of October 27 was simple: fly from his base to the North Pole and back. It was a straightforward, eight-hour flight.

The Aurora Borealis

Maultsby woke up at 8 o'clock Friday night. He ate a high protein low-residue breakfast of steak and eggs. He breathed pure oxygen to rid his blood of nitrogen before donning his pressure suit. At midnight, he settled into the U-2’s cramped cockpit. As Friday night turned into Saturday morning, he lifted off the runway. Though the flight path was simple, navigating it was another matter. An hour into the flight, Maultsby passed a radio beacon at Barter Island on Alaska’s northern coast, his last point of contact for six hours. U-2 missions demanded radio silence, and magnetic compasses didn’t work so close to the planet’s magnetic poles. For the bulk of his flight, Maultsby would be following the stars. A navigator at Eielson, Lieutenant Fred Okimoto, had prepared a stack of star charts showing what Maultsby should see in the sky at given times in the mission. It was up to the pilot to verify his position using a sextant and correct his heading as needed. As he got close to the North Pole, Maultsby aimed his sextant at one of the brighter stars on his horizon. But he couldn’t get a clear view. Every time he tried to focus on a star, orange lights danced across his scope and dazzled his eyes. It was the aurora borealis. Completely without warning he’d flown into one of the brightest – and in this case most disorienting – natural phenomena. The light of particles hitting the Earth’s atmosphere drowned out the light from the stars. Suddenly without any navigational aides over an entirely barren landscape, Maultsby decided the safest course of action was to turn around – turn 90 degrees to the left then 270 to the right – and fly towards home until he flew back over the beacon at Barter Island. By 8 a.m., though, Maultsby was starting to get worried. He should have reached Barter by then but his radio remained silent. He also noticed that Orion wasn’t where it ought to be. Suddenly, the crackling voice of a rescue pilot came over the radio.Concerned that he didn’t have a visual on Maultsby, the rescue pilot started firing signaling flares before asking the U-2 pilot to identify stars. Maultsby radioed that he saw Orion 15 degrees to the left of his nose. A quick check of his own star charts had the rescue pilot instruct Maultsby to turn 10 degrees to the left, but this advice was immediately contradicted by another voice ordering him to turn 30 degrees to the right. Maultsby had no reason to distrust either order; both had used a correct call sign. The conflicting orders added to the Maultsby’s growing concern. He didn’t know exactly where he was, but he did know that he was running out of fuel. He’d left Eielson with nine hours and 40 minutes of fuel and had been airborne for over eight hours. If he couldn’t get his bearings and get back to the base soon, he’d have to bail out of the U-2, and that wasn’t an appealing prospect. The best advice he’d been given about bailing out of a U-2 flying above the Arctic Circle was to not pull the cord on his chute: it was a better way to go than freezing to death on the ground.

World War Three

Though no one in the air knew where he was, there were people on the ground tracking Maultsby’s flight path. Unfortunately, they were the wrong people. The voice that had come over the radio directing him to turn 30 degrees to the right was, unbeknownst to him, a Soviet voice.

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An annotated map with key points along Maultsby's flight path. Map via Google Maps. Just before 8 a.m. Maultsby had crossed into Soviet airspace. He was nearly a thousand miles west of Barter Island, flying blind over the desolate northern shore of the Chukotka Peninsula. The Soviets had been tracking the flight, just waiting for him to come within range. The minute he’d crossed the Soviet border, two groups of MiGs took off from two different airfields with orders to shoot down the intruder. But unbeknownst to the Soviets, the Air Force Strategic Air Command was looking at the same information over their shoulders. Being highly security-conscious, the Soviets didn’t use a strong encryption system for their air-defense radar net; they needed their information to be available in real time for tracking stations all over the sprawling Russian country. The data carried by high-frequency radio transmissions skipped off the ionosphere and bounced down to American listening posts miles away. Spying on the Soviets this way was invaluable and a closely-guarded SAC secret, one they were hoping not to have to divulge in the effort to bring Maultsby home. But the Americans had to find some way to alert the pilot as to his position. A lost U-2 straying over the Soviet Union at the peak of the missile crisis was about the worst thing that could happen. The already-paranoid Soviet leaders would assume the pilot was on a secret mission to drop the first bomb of the Third World War while everyone was distracted by Cuba; an American U-2 pilot had been shot down over the island just hours before. The fear in Washington was that the Soviets might try to preempt an American strike by firing on the United States first, an action that would likely force Kennedy to respond in kind. SAC needed a way to get Maultsby home to avoid a potential nuclear war.

The Return

Gradually the pieces started falling into place. Okimoto, the navigator at Eielson, noticed a faint red glow on the eastern horizon while he reviewed the path he’d plotted for Maultsby’s flight. It was the sun beginning to rise in central Alaska. It was perfect. If Okimoto could get the pilot in a position to see the sun, he could get him home. Okimoto jumped on the radio. He asked Maultsby if he could see the sun coming up; the pilot couldn’t, confirming the navigator’s suspicions that he was too far west into Soviet airspace. Okimoto told Maultsby to turn 15 degrees to the left, putting Orion off his right wing tip and the pilot on a flight path back east. Maultsby acknowledged the order, but transmissions from Alaska were getting weaker. As he strained to hear the instructions he picked up a signal from an ordinary radio station. The music that met his ears wasn’t American pop music but Russian balalaikas. The reality of his situation hit like a ton of bricks. By the time he was on an eastern heading, Maultsby’s fuel situation was fast becoming dire. With ten minutes left and far longer to fly, he decided to shut down his engine and save his remaining power in case things got worse. Shutting off the engine meant he had no more power. The cockpit was plunged into darkness and the cabin depressurized, triggering his pressure suit to inflate. Maultsby went from sleek U-2 pilot to Stay Puft glider pilot in an instant. The elements that made the U-2 such a tricky aircraft to fly – its 80 foot wingspan dwarfs its 63 foot long body – became Maultsby’s chief ally. The U-2 was a formidable glider. It was ten minutes before the aircraft started losing altitude, and all the while Maultsby remained focused on keeping his wings level and his angle of attack steady to maintain a smooth glide. He’d dropped 45,000 feet and reentered American airspace before he caught the glow of the sun on the horizon. Maultsby also met two friendly F-102 fighters. The pilots welcomed him back to America and guided him to a nearby airfield, an ice strip at a military radar station at Kotzebue Sound. Maultsby made an initial pass over Kotzebue to scope out the runway: he found it was little more than a snow-covered peninsula jutting into the sea. On his second pass he attempted a landing, extended his flaps and released a parachute to slow his airspeed. But even unpowered the ultralight plane wanted to stay in the air. It finally belly-flopped onto the runway, skidded along the ice, and came to a stop in the snow banks. Maultsby opened the canopy to the cold morning air, the ordeal finally behind him. And the first thing he did was relieve himself in a snow bank.

The Aftermath

Though the incident didn’t turn the Cold War hot, it did reinforce to both Kennedy and Khrushchev that the risk of an accidental nuclear war was very real. On October 28, the day after Maultsby’s flight, Khrushchev and Kennedy came to an agreement: the Soviets would remove their missiles from Cuba if the Americans agreed not to storm the island, ensuring Fidel Castro’s leadership wouldn’t be challenged. Maultsby never flew north of Alaska again and died, in relative obscurity, in 1998 at the age of 72. Over the course of his career he was awarded 18 decorations for military service including the Purple Heart, Silver Star, Legion of Merit, Distinguished Flying Cross, and the Air Medal. Fellow pilots, however, remember him as the man who set the record for longest U-2 flight, dazzled by the Northern Lights.

Amy Shira Teitel is a freelance space writer whose work appears regularly on Discovery News Space and Motherboard among many others. She blogs about the history of spaceflight at Vintage Space, where this post originally appeared, and tweets at @astVintageSpace.

Top image courtesy Jamen Percy / Shutterstock

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