How the Aurora Borealis Almost Started WWIII

On Saturday, October 27th, 1962, President Kennedy had just learned that the Soviet Union was building missiles in Cuba. As American and Soviet military forces prepared for potential fighting, an Aurora Borealis in Alaska almost pushed the sensitive situation over the brink and into World War III.

Charles Maultsby was a seasoned fighter pilot, a veteran of the Korean War, and a prisoner of war in China for 22 months. He was stationed at the Eielson Ar Force Base in Alaska, taking atmospheric samples in a high-altitude spy U-2 plane to test for any test bomb remnants in the air. On that Friday night, all was routine, and Maultsby was just taking his position among the stars to send to his last point of contact before complete radio silence when the Aurora Borealis hit.

Without warning, Maultsby was blinded by the lights and navigation from the stars became impossible. To be safe, Maultsby decided to turn around – 90 degrees to the left then 270 to the right – and fly back over the point of contact on Barter Island.

By 8 a.m, Maultsby began to get worried, since he should have passed the island by then, and radio silence still hadn’t been broken. Then, a voice of a rescue pilot came over his radio. The other pilot began shooting signaling flares to locate Maultsby, and asked him to identify what stars he could. After communicating over star charts, the other pilot told Maultsby to turn 10 degrees to the left. Suddenly, another voice over the radio told him to turn 30 degrees to the right, which, after consideration, was also correct. Unbeknownst to him, that new voice was a Soviet one, who had been tracking Maultsby this whole time.

Air Force Captain Charles Maulstby. Credit: National Security Archive.

Running out of fuel and worried with the conflicting directions, Maultsby had little idea that he was far from where he was supposed to be. He was nearly a thousand miles west of Barter Island, and well into Soviet territory. Since he was still blind from the lights, he also had little idea that there were two groups of MiGs on his tail ready to shoot him down at any moment.

At the same time, Air Force Strategic Air Command was decoding messages sent by the Soviets about their unplanned guest by capturing high-frequency radio transmissions that were skipping off the ionosphere and bouncing back to American receivers with the help of the aurora. Not willing to give away their little secret, the Air Force could do nothing to warn Maultsby of his location, but if they allowed him to proceed, WWIII would be a certainty.

Finally, a navigator back at Eielson had an idea. He told Maultsby, who still didn’t realize he was in Russia, to follow the rising sun, which was 15 degrees to the pilot’s left, and that would send him in the right direction. Maultsby followed the direction of the crackling voice, and as the voice ended, his radio picked up a pop music station – a Russian one. Lucky for him, the MiGs that had been tracking him turned away when Maultsby changed his direction.
Finally out of fuel and still far from home, the now fully aware Maultsby shut down his engine and skillfully glided for ten minutes before losing altitude. Still gliding, he made it to an American airbase and landed safely on an ice runway.

The next day, Khrushchev and Kennedy reached an agreement, ending the Cold War, and Maultsby’s story faded into the history books like so many do. The pilot died in 1998 at age 72, and over the course of his career, was awarded 18 decorations for military service including the Purple Heart, Silver Star, Legion of Merit, Distinguished Flying Cross, and the Air Medal. To his fellow fliers however, he was the just the guy who broke the record for flying the longest in a U-2, flying in the Aurora Borealis, and almost starting WWIII.

(via Discovery Magazine)


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