Declassified: US Honors Swedish Pilots For Escorting Stricken SR-71 To Safety During Cold War
The Blackbird had suffered an engine failure during a mission over the Baltic Sea and its crew feared that Soviet jets might be hunting for them.
Just the other day, four Swedish Air Force officers received Air Medals from the U.S. Air Force for a Cold War mission that had remained classified until just last year. On what might have been just any other day in 1987, they had helped escort a stricken SR-71 Blackbird spy plane through Sweden’s airspace and on its way to safety, potentially shielding it from any marauding Soviet aircraft.
Swedish Air Force Colonel Lars-Eric Blad, Major Roger Moller, Major Krister Sjoberg, and Lieutenant Bo Ignell got their medals during a ceremony at the U.S. Embassy in Stockholm, Sweden on Nov. 28, 2018. The U.S. military as a whole awards Air Medals for singular acts of heroism or other particular meritorious achievements during a flight. Retired U.S. Air Force Lieutenant Colonels Duane Noll and Tom Veltri, the pilots aboard the SR-71 during the Cold War incident, were also present.
The Swedish aviators also received a painting depicting the event. The Swedish Armed Forces, or Forsvarsmakten, released a picture, seen at the top of this story, of the SR-71 that Ingell had taken at the time.
“We will never know what would or could have happened, but because of you, there was no international incident. The U.S. Air Force did not lose an irreplaceable aircraft, and two crew members’ lives were saved,” Noll said during the medal presentation ceremony. “Thank you for being highly skilled and dedicated patriotic fellow aviators.”
On June 29, 1987, Noll and Veltri took off from RAF Mildenhall in the United Kingdom for missions in the Barents Sea and Baltic Sea, flying at high altitude and using a slanted flight path to gather imagery inside the Soviet Union from international airspace. This would allow the plane to grab imagery of various important sites, including Soviet military facilities in the Kola Peninsula and around the Baltic Sea.
During the “Baltic Express” portion of the mission, one of the SR-71’s engines suffered a catastrophic failure. It was not the first time one of the Air Force's Blackbirds had experienced engine trouble while flying in the region.
The plane dropped more than 24,000 feet in a matter of minutes and ended up in Swedish airspace as it turned away from the Soviet Union, according to the Forsvarsmakten. The engine failure wasn’t the only issue the pilots were worried about, though.
The Soviet Union had long made it clear that it would shoot down American intelligence gathering aircraft if they penetrated its airspace, making the point particularly felt with the shootdown of CIA pilot Gary Powers in his U-2 in 1960. Soviet fighter jets also aggressively challenged U.S. spy planes operating in international waters, something present-day Russia continues to do, as well. There is an inherent risk of airspace violations in the narrow confines of the Baltic Sea region in general and Soviets might have been able to argue that the SR-71 had intruded into their territory, if only briefly, as a justification for trying to bring the stricken plane down.
“We did not know who would find us first,” Veltri said, adding that he and Noll were concerned about marauding Russian fighters. He continued on to say that he and Noll were thrilled to see the Swedish pilots in their distinctive Saab Viggen fighter jets and were sure from that point on that Soviet jets would keep their distance. Sweden wasn’t and still isn’t a member of the NATO alliance, but has historically found itself more aligned with the bloc than not. During the Cold War, the Swedish military actively patrolled the country’s air, land, and sea borders for intrusions from either side, though.
“We were performing an ordinary peacetime operation exercise,” retired Swedish Air Force Major Moller said at the medal ceremony. “Our fighter controller then asked me, ‘are you able to make an interception and identification of a certain interest?’ I thought immediately it must be an SR-71, otherwise he would have mentioned it. But at that time I didn’t know it was the Blackbird.”
Moller and Sjoberg were the first on the scene, confirming that it was an SR-71 and that it appeared to be experiencing some sort of malfunction. Noll and Veltri also eventually switched their plane’s transponder to issue the code “7700,” indicating an in-flight emergency.
Running low on fuel, Moller and Sjoberg had to return to base, turning things over to Blad and Ignell who had scrambled to relieve them. The Viggens remained at a safe distance from the SR-71, but continued to follow the Blackbird as the crew descended and reduced speed. It was unclear, initially, to the Swedish pilots if their American counterparts would be able to maintain control or would have to bail out.
Noll and Veltri were able to get the plane out of Swedish airspace on one engine. After that, they flew into Denmark, a NATO country, and from there into what was then West Germany, another member of the bloc. The Air Force pilots were able to make an emergency landing at the German Navy’s Nordholz Naval Air Base, situated on the North Sea.
With the SR-71 safely recovered and the Swedes agreeing not to reveal the extent of the incident publicly, the event remained classified along with the Blackbird’s other operations. The details of the mission became unclassified in 2017 after a standard 30-year declassification period. This also meant that the Air Force could finally honor the Swedish pilots for rending assistance at the time.
“That day in 1987 showed us that we can always count on our Swedish partners in times of great peril,” U.S. Air Force Major General John Williams, who serves as the Mobilization Assistant to the head of U.S. Air Forces in Europe (USAFE) and Air Forces Africa (AFAFRICA), said at the ceremony, where he personally presented the medals. “Even when there was both political risk and great physical risk in the form of actual danger, there was no hesitation on your part to preserve the pilots on that day.”
These sentiments are equally important today given Russia’s increasingly assertive actions in and around Scandinavia and the Baltic region, as part of that country’s shift to a more aggressive foreign policy in general. Russian jets have aggressively intercepted American intelligence aircraft in international airspace in the region in recent years, some of which fled into Swedish airspace.
Regardless, the ties between the Swedish armed forces and the alliance have been and are continuing to grow. Sweden recently sent forces to take part in the massive NATO exercise Trident Juncture in Norway, which wrapped up earlier in November 2018.
But whatever happens on the geopolitical stage, it’s great to see these Swedish pilots finally receive the credit they deserve for coming to the aid of Noll’s and Veltri when it mattered most.
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