On June 15, 1974, when President Richard Nixon paid a visit to Syrian president Hafez al-Assad (father of Syria’s current president). As Air Force One entered Syrian airspace, four camouflaged MiG fighters joined up on the VC-137’s wings.
Air Force One’s captain immediately acted to defend the iconic aircraft and its high-profile passengers.
White House officials awaiting the president’s arrival in Damascus told UPI reporters that they had been informed of the Syrian military’s plan to send honor escorts for Air Force One, but the officials didn’t bother to pass the information along to Air Force One pilot Colonel Ralph D. Albertazzie, who, fearing attack, banked violently right. For the next seven minutes, Albertazzie flew a series of evasive maneuvers, including a steep dive.
Air And Space Magazine describes the strange encounter as such:
Air Force One pilot Colonel Ralph D. Albertazzie, who, fearing attack, banked violently right. For the next seven minutes, Albertazzie flew a series of evasive maneuvers, including a steep dive.
Remembering the incident years later to reporter Kenneth Walsh, author of Air Force One: A History of the Presidents and Their Planes, CNN political analyst David Gergen, at the time a Nixon aide who was on Air Force One, said he wondered if the passengers would survive. He and others had been thrown to the floor.
The whole incident was a big and dangerous misunderstanding. White House officials already in Damascus had been told that the Syrian Air Force had planned to give Air Force One and honorary escort as it crossed into its territory, but nobody had informed Air Force One’s crew about the high-flying welcome wagon of sorts. After attempting to evade being shot down by the MiGs for seven long minutes—pushing the Boeing 707 derivative to the edge of its envelope and probably beyond—air traffic controllers informed Air Force One that the MiGs were not hostile and were there just as a formality as described to the White House advance party.
The flight continued on to land safely in Damascus where Nixon was treated to a full state welcome on the tarmac. ANew York Times article published the following day describes the reception:
When Mr. Nixon’s plane landed here in the late afternoon, he was given a 21‐gun salute. The road leading into Damascus was lined with soldiers in camouflaged combat uniforms and with fixed bayonets. The Golan Heights could be seen in the golden haze to the right as the limousine drove out of the airport
Nixon never publically recounted the terrifying moments in the sky that day, but he had privately told a reporter and author Kenneth Walsh that it really did scare him.
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