Two NATO fighters accidentally flew behind the Iron Curtain 60 years ago today
While the American, British and French allies all maintained airports in the West Berlin enclave, these were closed to West German air traffic, military or otherwise, due to Four-Power regulations governing the divided city. Not expecting West German fighter jets to fly over East German territory, French air traffic controllers at Tegel Airport in the French sector assumed that the Luftwaffe planes were civilian aircraft. lost and suggested they land at Tempelhof, the US air base in Berlin.
At Tempelhof, it appears the controllers were too busy with a Pan Am DC-6 airliner arriving from Frankfurt that they did not notice the Luftwaffe jets. However, once the presence of the lost airmen became evident, the Tempelhof controllers instead asked the Thunderstreaks to land at Tegel. As both pilots considered turning around and heading back west, Tempelhof controllers knew the MiGs were now chasing them and instructed the F-84Fs to descend over Berlin, aiming for Tegel. .
Not only did Tegel Airport have a much longer runway, it was also less frequented by other aircraft movements. Perhaps more importantly, it was further out of town than the centrally located Tempelhof, making the F-84Fs less likely to be spotted. After all, as West German aircraft, they were prohibited from entering the airspace over Berlin.
At 3:29 p.m. local time, the two Thunderstreaks landed at Tegel in the French sector of Berlin. Then begins a frantic effort to conceal the arrival of the jets, and they are quickly put in hangars. The French told the Soviet representative at the Allied Air Safety Center that the Tegel landing was an emergency, the result of an unforeseen technical failure.
Pfefferkorn and Eberl were undoubtedly lucky to come out unscathed. The downing of NATO planes that crossed borders in Warsaw Pact airspace was by no means unusual at this time. In 1964, a similar incident, in which a member of the US Air Force T-39 Sabreliner training jet flew in East German airspace, ended with the American jet being shot down by a MiG, and its three crew members were killed. Two years later, a similar fate fell on the US Air Force RB-66 Destroyer recon roll, although his crew survived.
As it stood, Pfefferkorn and Eberl, and their two jets, had escaped the attention of Warsaw Pact air defenses but had nevertheless created an international incident. The West German government in Bonn issued an apology, describing the incident as the result of “human and technical failure” and pointing to the failure of the compass system in both planes.
The Soviets were still unhappy, formally protesting what they called “premeditated provocation” and threatening to shoot down NATO planes if it happened again. It is a threat, as already noted, that they would follow through.
As for the F-84Fs, it was decided to leave them there. After being cannibalized for their engines and, ironically, their navigation systems, the jets were unceremoniously buried south of the Tegel runway.
The pilots, both arrested by French authorities due to their unplanned visit to Berlin, only returned home after nearly five weeks. Their mistake was to cost their careers dearly: both were demoted to ground crew roles. The situation of their commander, Oberstleutnant Siegfried Barth, who had flown for Nazi Germany during World War II, was, at least initially, even worse. He was relieved of his post until West German Defense Minister Franz Josef Strauss gave in due to legal pressure and reinstated him.
Unsurprisingly, the implications of the incident have raised concerns in East and West Germany. In the east, the fact that two NATO planes flew to the capital without being stopped was alarming. For the West, questions were raised at the highest level as to how the F-84Fs had managed to penetrate so far into enemy airspace at a time of grave tension, when it was known that this could have resulted in their assassination or, worse yet, convincing the East Germans and the Soviets that they were under attack. As part of its response, the Luftwaffe said any subsequent incursion into Warsaw Pact airspace would result in the immediate dismissal of the responsible commander.
In a conflict punctuated by close calls and where the expansion of nuclear arsenals on both sides meant that the threat of annihilation was very real, the incident of September 14, 1961 was a reminder of how high the stakes were.
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