On the 8th May 1954 three RB-47E’s departed from RAF Fairford in Gloucestershire and headed out over the North Sea towards the Kola Peninsula. The lead aircraft, flown by Capt Harold Austin with co-pilot Carl Holt and navigator Maj Vance Heavilin, was briefed to photograph 9 Soviet airfields over a 600 mile stretch of territory from Murmansk to Arkhangelsk then Onega before turning southwest to escape into Finnish airspace.
After refuelling off southern Norway the aircraft headed North towards Murmansk. About 100 miles from the North of Murmansk the other 2 aircraft reversed course and watch as Hal Austin and his crew continued heading south towards the Soviet mainland. At around mid-day the RB-47E coasted in near Murmansk at 40,000 ft and 440 kts with the cameras running. Before long they were also joined by 3 MiG’s who confirmed their identity, but made no attempt to intercept them. Then, as they approached Arkhangelsk, 6 more MiG’s joined the RB-47E and began opening fire in an attempt to shoot the aircraft down, luckily, 40,000 ft was at the MiG’s maximum altitude and the aircraft had difficulty taking aim. Holt quickly returned fire using the tail cannon, but unfortunately this jammed after only a few shots had been fired.
Eventually, after a running battle lasting some time, a cannon shell from one of the MiG’s struck the RB-47E through the top of the port wing, knocking out the intercom and jamming the radio onto one frequency. As the aircraft flew closer to the Finnish border the MiG’s gradually dropped back, apart from one pilot who, in a throwback to a more chivalrous age, formated alongside the RB-47E and saluted the crew before turning back home.
Running desperately low on fuel, Hal Austin just managed to make it to a tanker, which launched out of Fairford when they heard of his predicament. After landing at Fairford the ground crewmen were somewhat taken aback to see cannon shell damage on an aircraft that had supposedly only been on a training sortie.
In recognition of their outstanding skill and bravery, General LeMay awarded Hal Austin and his crew 2 Distinguished Flying Crosses each