Cold War Spy Plane Found in Baltic Sea
Stefan Lovgren in Stockholm, Sweden
for National Geographic News
|October 10, 2003|
When deep-sea explorers combing the Baltic Sea floor located a Swedish spy plane shot down by the Russians more than 50 years ago this June, they ended one of the more enduring mysteries of the Cold War.
The DC-3 aircraft and its eight-man crew were last heard from on June 13, 1952. A second Swedish plane, sent to search for the DC-3, was also shot down, though its crew survived after making an emergency landing.
For almost 40 years, Sweden maintained the DC-3 had been on a training mission. The Soviet Union claimed it didn't know what happened to it.
Finally, under pressure from family members of the crew, Swedish officials leaked that the plane had been spying on the Soviet Union for NATO, even though Sweden was officially neutral during the Cold War.
Then, in 1991, a Russian pilot told a Swedish diplomat that he had shot down the plane.
The Swedish military has said it will salvage the DC-3, which is in remarkably good condition on the sea floor.
But there are plenty of other mysteries that remain to be solved. The Baltic Sea may be littered with hundreds, if not thousands, of wrecks, from downed airplanes to sunken ships. Most are likely casualties of the two World Wars, but some vessels may date back as far as the 16th century.
During their five-year search for the DC-3, sea explorers from Marin Mätteknik (MMT), a Gothenburg-based marine surveying firm, and Deep Sea Productions, a media company in Stockholm, found several other wrecks.
"The Baltic Sea is like a massive graveyard," said Ola Oskarsson, the head of MMT. "If people only knew how many wrecks are buried there, the Baltic Sea would be swarming with divers."
Searching the Sea
The mission to find the missing DC-3 was spearheaded by Anders Jallai, an airline pilot who is also an entrepreneur and deep-sea explorer.
After locating a sunken Russian submarine in 1998, Jallai was asked by a journalist if he planned to look for the DC-3.
"My initial reaction was, 'No, it's impossible to find.'" Jallai recalled. "The area is too big to search."
But the more he learned about the incident, the more intrigued he became. Soon, Jallai was hooked.
Together with Carl Douglas, a historian who owns Deep Sea Productions, and Oskarsson of MMT, Jallai began planning an expedition to look for the missing aircraft.
The Baltic Sea, which separates Sweden from the former Soviet republics of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, can be unforgiving. During unsuccessful searches for the plane between 1991 and 1997, the Swedish Navy canceled several tours because of bad weather.
The private consortium's first two missions, in 2000 and 2002, also failed to locate the DC-3.
Although much had been written about the missing plane, the explorers had little to go on apart from old Russian maps and eyewitness testimony.
Eventually, they decided to ignore the results of previous, unsuccessful searches and revisit areas that had already been searched.
On their third mission, in June this year, they finally hit pay dirt.
Using sophisticated sonar radar, the team found the DC-3 in international waters east of Gotska Sandön, an island 75 miles (120 kilometers) east of the Swedish coastline.
Photographs and video from a remote-controlled deep-sea camera confirmed it was the missing plane. Sunk halfway into the sand almost 400 feet (120 meters) below the surface, the aircraft was found intact.
Because there is little oxygen at this depth, the wreck had barely deteriorated. The hull shows Sweden's national symbols of three crowns and what appear to be bullet holes in the side.
Although no human remains were seen, Jallai and Oskarsson believe the crew may be buried inside the plane.
At 11:20 a.m. on the morning of June 13, 1952, the air command center in Stockholm received an emergency call from the DC-3 plane: "We've been shot."
Another call in Morse code followed a few minutes later. Then nothing.
The Swedish military quickly dispatched a seaplane to search for the DC-3. But that plane was brought down by enemy fire and had to make an emergency water landing near a German commercial ship, the Münsterland, which was plying the Baltic Sea.
The Soviet Union admitted to shooting down the second airplane, claiming it had violated Soviet airspace, but kept silent on the DC-3.
The slow, bulky, and unarmed DC-3, nicknamed "Flying Hut" by pilots, would have been an easy target for a Soviet MiG aircraft.
The incident poisoned diplomatic relations between the Soviet Union and Sweden for years. Sweden, which was officially neutral in the Cold War, insisted the plane had been returning from a simple training mission when it was shot down.
Later, however, it emerged that the DC-3 was equipped with British surveillance gear to spy on radar stations in the Soviet Union at the behest of Great Britain and the United States.
Kept in the dark about their husbands' fate by their government, none of the eight widows of the crew remarried. Only two had their husbands pronounced dead.
After a Russian pilot, Grigori Osjinski, admitted to a Swedish diplomat that he shot down the plane, Evgeny Shaposhnikov, then Soviet defense minister, visited Sweden in 1991 and apologized to the relatives of the DC-3's crew.
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