An aircraft to gather information about Soviet air defense radar systems

During the early part of the Cold War, the US Air Force needed an aircraft to gather information about Soviet air defense radar systems, including details like their location, range and coverage. The electronic reconnaissance RB-47H, developed from the B-47E, met this requirement, and Boeing completed the first RB-47H in 1955. Boeing produced 32 newly built RB-47Hs and converted three B-47Es into ERB-47Hs.


The RB-47H first entered service in August 1955. Over the next decade, RB-47H crews of the 55th Strategic Reconnaissance Wing (SRW) flew thousands of dangerous “ferret” missions.

RB-47H intercepted over the Barents Sea by a Soviet MiG-19

On Jul. 1, 1960, the RB-47H serial number 53-4281 of the 55th SRW and nicknamed The Little Toy Dog took off from Brize Norton. As told by Krzysztof Dabrowsky in his book Defending Rodinu Volume 1: Build-Up and Operational History of the Soviet Air Defence Force 1945-1960, the aircraft was flown by Major Willard Palm (commander), Captain Freeman B. Olmstead (pilot), and Captain John McKone (navigator) with three more men operating electronic equipment: Major Eugene Posa, Captain Dean Phillips and Captain Oscar Goforth. The latter trio had their stations in an enclosed compartment which occupied the space normally taken by the bomb bay of the B-47. In addition, the aircraft had a seventh ‘crewmember’ of sorts, namely a small toy dog mascot which Major Palm carried with him for luck.

Many hours of solitary flight had already passed for the RB-47’s crew when suddenly they got company of the undesirable sort: the Americans were intercepted over the Barents Sea by a MiG-19 fighter of the 174th GIAP flown by Captain Vasyli Polyakov. Subsequent accounts differed, not only on how the situation developed but even where the encounter took place. According to the Soviets, it must have been right off Cape Svyatoy Nos, whereas the Americans maintained that they were no closer than 30 miles (55 kilometres) from that location – arguably, this will never be established with certainty.

RB-47H shot down by Soviet MiG-19

The Story of the RB-47H ELINT Plane shot down by a Soviet MiG-19 over the Barents Sea
The RB-47H carried a crew of six, with the pilot, co-pilot and navigator in a pressurized section in the nose. The three electronic warfare officers (EWOs), also known as “Ravens” or “Crows,” were stationed in what would be the bomb bay in a normal B-47. On typical missions, the EWOs spent about 12-14 hours working in this confined, windowless compartment, completely surrounded by electronic equipment.

Having intercepted the US aircraft, the MiG pilot first took station off the RB-47’s right wing and subsequently rocked the wings of his own mount, in what is an established signal conveying to the Americans that they had been intercepted and were to follow. Since this did not result in their compliance, the Soviet pilot opened fire with cannon on the US aircraft, making two passes and firing 111 rounds. The Americans attempted to return fire with the RB-47’s tail gun but claimed its fire control radar was jammed. However, as far as is known, the MiG-19 did not have such electronic warfare capabilities and thus it is more likely that the Americans’ defensive armament suffered some malfunction. As a result of the MiG’s attacks, the US aircraft sustained crippling damage and went down.

The flight crew managed to eject: Captains McKone and Olmsted were rescued by a Soviet fishing trawler, but Major Palm lost his life. The latter’s body was recovered and subsequently returned to the United States. All the men operating the RB-47’s electronics perished with the aircraft. It was established that of this trio, only the remains of Major Posa were confirmed to have been found at a later date, but for reasons which still remain unclear instead of being returned to the United States, they were buried at an undisclosed location.

Captains McKone and Olmsted released

It is possible, though far from certain, that additional bodies may have been recovered. Unfortunately, even if it was indeed the case, what subsequently happened to them could not be ascertained. In somewhat macabre postscript, a few month later a decomposing human leg, very likely belonging to one of the killed Americans, was hauled with the nets aboard a Soviet fishing vessel but was promptly thrown overboard by the order of its captain. The toy dog mascot which on this occasion failed to bring luck, went down with the ill-fated aircraft.

The Story of the RB-47H ELINT Plane shot down by a Soviet MiG-19 over the Barents Sea
Soviet MiG-19

Once landed ashore, Captains McKone and Olmsted were brought to Moscow and were held at Lubyanka. They underwent lengthy and obviously unpleasant interrogations, though suffered no physical torture, unless one counts the very meagre food rations they were fed and the Soviet cigarettes they were occasionally given to smoke. Meanwhile, American diplomats in Moscow were making efforts to secure their release but to no avail. For some time, the Soviets thought about putting the US airmen on trial for espionage but decided against it. Apparently, they concluded that it would be politically more beneficial to free the Americans as a goodwill gesture to the newly inaugurated US President, John F. Kennedy. Accordingly, both airmen were released into the hands of US diplomats on Jan. 24, 1961.

A very serious international incident

It is not entirely clear how the shootdown itself came about. Captain Polyakov may have handled it at his own discretion, since the standing order to destroy aircraft violating Soviet airspace should have served as sufficient justification for his actions. It was also reported that his resolve strengthened because the RB-47H was supposed to be heading for a secret nuclear submarine base. The latter explanation, however, appears to be very unlikely for even if a captain of the Air Defence Force knew about a secret base of the navy, it meant such a facility was not secret at all.

Alternatively, available sources seem to indicate he might have been advised to shoot the US aircraft down by a ground control officer, Senior Lieutenant Anatoliy Kotlyarov. The latter apparently took it upon himself to say the fateful words when all officers senior to him, who were present and were listening over the radio to Captain Polyakov relating how the situation was developing, somewhat conveniently suffered from a temporary loss of speech. In any case, when Captain Polyakoy returned to base, his immediate superiors and all senior officers up the chain of command were initially startled. Once it was established that this was not a case of fratricide (at first it was speculated his victim might have been a Soviet Tu-16), it became clear that a very serious international incident had taken place.

Stratojet crew
The Then Capt. Bruce Olmstead and his wife, Gail, left, and Capt. John McKone and his then-wife, Connie, are reunited in January 1961 after Olmstead and McKone were released after seven months in a Soviet prison. (John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum)

MiG-19 pilot who shot down the RB-47H decorated with the Order of the Red Banner

To make matters worse, at least from the point of view of the Soviet leadership, such actions of a senior lieutenant and a captain meant either that senior officers had no control over their subordinates or that crucial decisions of potentially grave consequences were left in the hands of junior officers, which basically made all the generals and marshals seem redundant, at least in the eyes of someone like Khrushchev.

Fortunately for all those involved on the Soviet side, it turned out that the Soviet leader was personally satisfied with what had happened, treating the whole matter in the vein of ‘teaching the Americans a lesson’, When he inquired where is our hero?` a surprised Marshal Malinovski did not understand who Khrushchev was talking about, but Marshal Biryuzov swiftly grasped it, replying ‘all ours are like this,’ that is, all his men were as resolute and combative as the one who shot the US aircraft down. The end result was that Captain Polyakov not only avoided any negative consequences for his actions but was decorated with the Order of the Red Banner at the Kremlin.

Defending Rodinu Volume 1: Build-Up and Operational History of the Soviet Air Defence Force 1945-1960 is published by Helion & Company and is available to order here.

The Story of the RB-47H ELINT Plane shot down by a Soviet MiG-19 over the Barents Sea

Photo credit: U.S. Air Force