Over Exposed! - Part 1: Bikini to Blizzard
'Over Exposed!' (44-71999) was an F-15A Reporter photo reconnaissance aircraft—hence the name—that participated in Operation Crossroads, the 1946 atomic bomb tests at Bikini Atoll in the Pacific Ocean. Photographic aircraft displayed a black square with a yellow 'F' on the vertical tail. Yellow bands were painted on the fuselage, outer wings, and, in some cases, engine nacelles of the participating aircraft, and the last three digits of the aircraft serial number were placed aft of the fuselage band. There was a very liberal use of aircraft nicknames and nose art, some comical, others more serious minded, during Operation Crossroads and 'Over Exposed' (44-71999) was no exception.
The 311th Reconnaissance Wing assigned to the Strategic Air Command on 21 March 1946, was the Army Air Forces' world-wide photographic and mapping unit. All mapping and charting agencies of the United States government were dependent on it for their area photography. From 1946 through 1949 the 311th was engaged in hundreds of separate projects. One of the most important projects of the 311th Wing in 1946 and 1947 was Operation Nanook, which consisted of the aerial mapping of parts of Greenland (Project Eardrum) and the establishment of weather stations in the Greenland area. Late in 1946 Army Air Forces aircraft began flights along the borders of the Soviet Union and its satellite states in missions known as the Peacetime Airborne Reconnaissance Program, or PARPRO. These PARPRO missions collected electronic and photographic intelligence, but their intelligence coverage was limited to peripheral regions. Before long, commanders of the new United States Air Force (USAF), formed by the National Security Act of 1947, sought permission to conduct direct overflights of Soviet territory, especially those regions in Siberia closest to Alaska.
Also at this time, under the new U.S. Air Force designation system the F-15 (F designating Photo under AAF classifications) became the RF-61 (R for reconnaissance and F for fighter). This immediately caused confusion, both because the F-15A was unarmed and was never considered a fighter, and because the F-15A was now reclassified as the RF-61A both by the USAF and in squadron records (the P-61A already existing as the earliest variant of the original 'Black Widow'). The designation of RF-61F was applied later, but by this the unit had unofficially returned to calling the aircraft the F-15A, and would continue to do so for most of their operational time with the machine.
In 1948, the initiation of the Berlin Blockade by the Soviet Union increased the level of mistrust on both sides; however, the closed Soviet society made gathering intelligence about the development of new weapons very difficult and greatly concerned the US and its allies. After the Berlin Airlift began, reconnaissance forces in Europe were augmented by the dispatch of five aircraft of the 91st Strategic Reconnaissance Group to the United Kingdom, and 'Over Exposed' was among the five. In an effort to obtain information about weapons development and deployment, the USAF conducted regular routine reconnaissance missions near the Soviet land borders or just outside the 12-mile limit defining international waters. In most cases, the planes were forbidden to fly into Soviet airspace, but in a few cases the need for information outweighed the risk of overflight and a plane was sent into the Soviet Union. President Harry S. Truman soon authorized the first overflight of Soviet territory, and on 5th August 1948 a Boeing RB-29 Superfortress took-off from Ladd AFB, Alaska and, after routing over Siberia and spending over 19 hours in the air, eventually landed at Yokota AB in Japan.
Another such flight occurred on 3rd November 1948. The US Air Force had strong suspicions that the Soviets were producing large numbers of jet fighters and needed to find out for sure. Additionally, the USAF's Strategic Air Command needed to know whether Soviet long-range bombers were stationed at the northern bases on and near the Kola Peninsula. In an effort to answer these questions, Captain Landon P. Tanner and his co-pilot Captain Harry Stroud took off from RAF Scampton in Lincolnshire for a reconnaissance flight near Murmansk in the northern Soviet Union. The crew of ‘Over Exposed’ had nearly completed their tours of duty and were scheduled to return to their homes in the United States in less than a month. Waiting for 33-year-old Captain Landon P. Tanner were a wife and two daughters, Jean and Jane. The flight would take the RF-61F Reporter over Norway, Sweden, northern Finland, and ultimately the Soviet Union itself. The plane flew over numerous Soviet airfields and naval facilities conducting photographic reconnaissance of the various facilities. Soviet Air Defence Forces (PVO) fighters were spotted after being over Soviet territory for about 50 miles, but they were unable to catch the high-speed, high-altitude reconnaissance aircraft. While the PVO may not have been able to put a stop to the intruder, Murphy could.
Still over Soviet territory, Capt. Tanner noticed that the left engine had started getting rough. The pilot checked all the instruments, but everything indicated normal. He turned back towards Finland, but the left engine kept getting worse and the pilot was eventually forced to feather it. When the propeller stopped, Capt. Tanner could see that one of the blades had broken at least three-fourths of the way around about a foot from the spinner and was bent slightly backwards. He put the aircraft in a shallow dive and headed straight for the Russo-Finnish border. Capt. Tanner and Capt. Stroud were now over Soviet territory, flying on one engine, losing speed, losing altitude, and had Soviet fighters closing the distance between them. As the letters on the side of the plane grimly spelled out, they were truly 'Over Exposed'.