The Cold War Story Behind 5x5

At 12:00 am (local time), Saturday, October 27, 1962, USAF Captain Charles W. Maultsby took off from Eielson AFB, located just south of Fairbanks, Alaska. Maultsby's 8-hour mission was to fly his U2 "Dragon Lady" spy plane to the North Pole to collect air samples as a means of investigating the nuclear weapons testing being conducted over a thousand miles away in the Soviet Union. Little did Maultsby know that his flight that morning nearly triggered World War III on what would come to be known "Black Saturday" -- the most dangerous day of the Cuban Missile Crisis. 

Because the magnetic fields of the North Pole played such mischief with navigational equipment, the pilots of "Project Stardust" had to navigate using the stars. As Maultsby neared his target, the brilliance of the aurora borealis wreaked havoc on his ability to find the navigational stars he had used to plot his course. After arriving at what he believed to be the North Pole, Maultsby collected his samples and turned for home ... or so he thought. By virtue of being off roughly 35 degrees at the top of the globe, Maultsby's attempt to fly south back to Alaska instead took him over 1,000 miles off course. Exactly 40 minutes after Major Rudolf Anderson’s U2 plane was shot down over Cuba, Maultsby’s plane crossed into the airspace of the Soviet Union. By the time Maultsby got south enough to be rid of the northern lights, none of the stars visible to him were where he expected them to be. He knew then that he was lost, but had no idea in which direction.

Casting concerns of stealth aside, Maultsby began sending out open radio signals hoping to find a friendly voice who could guide him home. In response, he received two conflicting signals: one voice told him to turn ten degrees to the left, while another voice came on telling him to steer thirty degrees to the right. While Maultsby tried to figure out where he was and which direction was the correct one that would take him home, six Soviet MiG jets were in pursuit, clawing for altitude, hoping to get high enough to shoot the intruder down. The last message Maultsby could hear from what would prove to be the fading signal of his countrymen in Alaska was the instruction to “turn left, fifteen degrees.”

As he continued to receive conflicting directions -- "turn right thirty-five degrees" -- Maultsby finally heard a signal over his radio that removed all doubt where he was and which direction he needed to go: "a radio station off the nose of the aircraft, playing what sounded like Russian folk music. The strains of balalaikas, accordions, and Slavic voices came in 'loud and clear.'"

Knowing he was deep within Russia, Maultsby steered his plane until the stars of the belt of Orion were visible off his right wing, assuring him that he was finally headed east towards the sunrise and Alaska. Perilously low on fuel, Maultsby cut power and expertly glided his U2 to safety, landing on a remote airstrip at Kotzebue, a tiny remote penninsula in NW Alaska. Fully loaded, his U2 carried fuel enough for 9 hours and 40 minutes of flight; Maultsby had been aloft for 10 hours and 25 minutes.


Capt. Maultby's U2 (s/n 56-715)


How WWIII almost happened in one map


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