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 enclave of West Berlin, these were off-limits to West German air traffic, military or otherwise, due to the Four Powers regulations governing the divided city. Not expecting West German combat jets to be over East German territory, the French air traffic controllers at Tegel Airport, in the French sector, assumed the Luftwaffe planes were lost civilian aircraft and suggested they land at Tempelhof, the U.S. airbase in Berlin.

At Tempelhof, it seems the controllers were too busy with a Pan Am DC-6 airliner that was arriving from Frankfurt, that they failed to notice the Luftwaffe jets. However, once the presence of the lost fliers became clear, the Tempelhof controllers instead requested the Thunderstreaks land at Tegel. While the two pilots considered turning around and flying back to the West, the Tempelhof controllers were aware MiGs were now in pursuit and called for the F-84Fs to drop down low over Berlin, aiming for Tegel.

Not only did Tegel Airport have a much longer runway, but it was also less busy with other aircraft movements. Perhaps most importantly, it was further outside the city than the centrally located Tempelhof, making it less likely that the F-84Fs would be spotted. After all, as West German aircraft, they were prohibited from the airspace over Berlin.

At 3:29 PM local time, the two Thunderstreaks touched down at Tegel in Berlin’s French sector. There then began a frantic effort to conceal the jets’ arrival, and they were quickly put in hangars. The French told the Soviet representative at the Allied air security center that the Tegel landing had been an emergency, the result of an unforeseen technical failure.

Pfefferkorn and Eberl were undoubtedly lucky to survive unscathed. The shooting down of NATO aircraft that strayed across borders into Warsaw Pact airspace was by no means unusual at this time. In 1964, a similar incident, in which a U.S. Air Force T-39 Sabreliner training jet flew into East German airspace, ended with the American jet being shot down by a MiG, and its three crew were killed. Two years later, a similar fate befell a U.S. Air Force RB-66 Destroyer reconnaissance jet, although its crew survived.

As it was, Pfefferkorn and Eberl, and their two jets, had escaped the attentions of the Warsaw Pact air defenses but had nonetheless 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 the jets.

The Soviets were still unhappy, making a formal protest against what they described as a “premeditated provocation” and threatening to shoot down NATO aircraft were it to happen again. This is a threat, as already noted, that they would follow through on.

As for the F-84Fs, it was decided to leave them where they were. After they had been cannibalized for their engines and, ironically, their navigation systems, the jets were unceremoniously buried south of the runway at Tegel.

The pilots, both of whom had been arrested by the French authorities on account of their unplanned Berlin visit, only returned home after nearly five weeks. Their mistake was to prove costly to their careers: both were demoted to ground crew roles. The situation for their commanding officer, Oberstleutnant Siegfried Barth, who had flown for Nazi Germany during World War II, was, initially at least, even worse off. He was relieved of his duties until West German Minister of Defense Franz Josef Strauss relented due to legal pressure and reinstated him.

Not surprisingly, the implications of the incident caused concern in both East and West Germany. In the East, the fact that two NATO jets had flown as far as the capital without being stopped was alarming. For the West, there were questions at the highest levels as to how the F-84Fs had managed to penetrate so far into enemy airspace at a time of serious tensions, when it was known that it could have resulted in them being shot down or, worse still, convincing the East Germans and Soviets that they were under attack. As part of its response, the Luftwaffe declared that any subsequent such incursion of Warsaw Pact airspace would lead to the immediate dismissal of the responsible commander.

In a conflict that was punctuated by close calls, and in which the expanding nuclear arsenals on both sides meant that the threat of annihilation was very real, the incident of September 14, 1961, is a reminder of just how high the stakes were.

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