NATO pilot recalls flying into Soviet airspace in 1972
After World War 2, Germany was divided into four occupied zones – Britain in the northwest, France in the southwest, the US in the south and the Soviet Union in the east. Under their occupying governments, the two sides of the Iron Curtain followed very different paths – West Germany became a capitalist country with a market economy, and the east fell under highly centralised communist rule. Berlin, situated in Soviet territory, was also divided into four occupied zones, but in 1961, the USSR launched an ultimatum demanding the withdrawal of all armed forces, leading to the erection of the Berlin Wall.
The Eastern Bloc portrayed the Wall as protecting its population from fascist elements conspiring to prevent the “will of the people” from building a socialist state in East Germany and were ordered to shoot anyone trying to cross.
It marked the start of a treacherous period, which almost saw both sides spark a nuclear war – and former Canadian Air Force pilot Laurie Hawn revealed during an appearance on the ‘Cold War Conversations’ how he risked aggravating tensions further.
He told host and producer Ian Sanders: “It was a beautiful day, September 11, 1972, it was my own 9/11.
“I’d been away on leave and had come back into the squadron a day early and we were doing a close air support with the Belgium army.
Two Lockheed F-104 Starfighter planes flying over a mountain range
Germany was divided after the war
“One of the guys was sick so the guy running the operation said, ‘Do you want a trip?’ and I said, ‘Hell yes’.
“So I went and put my gear on, got a 30-second brief, we had some pre-planned routes that would get us part-way, and then we would have to use maps after that.
“He told me to take it, climb to 5,000 feet, talk on your radio at this frequency, do some runs and come home.”
Mr Hawn, who was taking part in an exercise among NATO allies, went on to detail his orders.
He added: “I did that, then they said there are some USAF F4’s coming from behind, so we need to clear the target area eastbound before turning south.
Pilot checks the nose of Lockheed’s supersonic F-104A Starfighter
“I didn’t realise two things – firstly my map system wasn’t very reliable at all and I hadn’t paid any attention to it because it was a beautiful day, it thought base was somewhere over in Czechoslovakia.
“The other thing I didn’t realise was the target area was already inside the buffer zone – 10 miles from the political border. The only ones allowed to fly inside it were the Germans, the Americans, the Brits and the Canadians.
“What I didn’t appreciate was inside this, so I was already 10 miles from the border and when I turned east I was at 5,000 feet, squawking, I wasn’t hiding from anyone.
“I did a point-to-point to find the end of the target and I would just follow that backwards home.”
But the pilot soon realised something was wrong.
Tensions continued with the USSR until the fall of the Berlin Walla
He added: “I launched off eastbound, I’ve got lots of gas, I’m looking for other jets to play with – everybody used to bounce each other over there all the time.
“But I’m not seeing anyone, the terrain isn’t looking like it did and I realised something was wrong.
“I climbed to 20,000 feet and turned west tuned into Navigation aid and it said 070 for 95 miles, I said, ‘Woah, that’s not what I thought I was’.
“If you did stray over there, then our air defence guys were monitoring it all the time and if they saw somebody going to a bad place they would call a ‘brass monkey’.
“If you heard that and you weren’t 100 percent sure where you were, then they might be talking to you.”
The 73-year-old recalled his horror when he noticed the situation he was in.
Both sides had nuclear weapons on call
“I hadn’t heard that. I was high, squawking, so I assumed I was fine, and then just by Frankfurt, these two US Phantoms jumped me.
“I didn’t have any gas to play then, so I went to just subsonic speed, ran away and did some turns and didn’t see them anymore.
“Then something caught my eye, I looked and the America Phantom was coming from underneath me and there was another behind me.
“I realised something was wrong, I took out the string and plotted 070 for 95 miles from Frankfurt – and I was in the traffic pattern of Erfurt – which was one of the big bases in the East at the time.
“The s*** hit the fan, I got a call asking, ‘Where were you just now’ and when I got back I got a reproof for negligence in mission planning – which was true because I hadn’t done any.
World War 3 flashpoints
“We found out afterwards that it wasn’t the air defence guys that caught me coming back, it was the civil radar and those two Phantoms just happened to be going cross country and spotted a high-speed target in the East zone.
“Our air defence guys had not seen me going or coming back – but I was about 30 or 35 miles across the border.”
The consequences of Mr Hawn being spotted and shot down by the USSR could have been devastating.
There were several tense similar moments during the four-year spat that threatened to boil tensions over.
And with both sides armed to the teeth with nuclear weapons, it would have only taken one rash decision to spark World War 3.