Death in the Sky: The Vietnam War’s Most Hair-Raising Photo

Pilot’s 1968 selfie shows Soviet missile skimming just under his F-105 in the skies above Hanoi

Maj. Don Harten posing in front of his bomb-laden F-105, dubbed the Pink Pussycat, at Takhli Royal Thai AFB, Thailand, 1968. (Official USAF photo.)
Midair (Lyons Press) is a true account of one of the most remarkable tales of survival in the history of aviation — a midair collision at 30,000 feet by two bomb-laden B-52s over a category 5 super typhoon above the South China Sea during the outset of the Vietnam War.
A Soviet-made SA-2 surface-to-air missile passes at a speed of Mach 3.5 only a few feet beneath Maj. Don Harten’s F-105, which was flying over Hanoi on Feb. 22, 1968, on its way to bomb the nearby Hoa Lac Air Field. An automated camera near the plane’s nose took the photo looking back toward the plane’s tail. Hanoi is beneath the undercast. Maj. Harten is in the midst of a sharp evasive maneuver that likely saved his life. The horizon can be seen as a dark line in the upper left corner of the photo, signifying that the pilot has banked hard left at about a 45-degree angle to elude the missile, which is approaching the plane from below and behind. A split second after this photo was taken, the missile detonated just ahead of the F-105’s nose. In a mission report, military aviation experts stated that the plane was well within the missile’s “kill zone” and were puzzled at how the jet and its pilot escaped unscathed. This is almost certainly the closest photo ever taken of a Soviet missile of any kind in flight. (Official USAF photo.)
This is a composite of two USAF photos. Left: A Soviet-made SA-2 surface-to-air missile passes at a speed of Mach 3.5 only a few feet beneath Maj. Don Harten’s F-105, which was flying over Hanoi on Feb. 22, 1968, on its way to bomb the nearby Hoa Lac Air Field. An automated camera near the plane’s nose took the photo looking back toward the plane’s tail. Hanoi is beneath the undercast. (Official USAF photo.) Right: US Air Force reconnaissance photo shows one of three successive SA-2 missiles fired toward Maj. Harten’s four-plane Bison One formation on Feb. 22, 1968, over Hanoi. (Official USAF photo.)

Author of Midair (Lyons Press, 2016) and Thunder in the Mountains (Lyons Press, 2014). At work on a novel, as well as a book of historical non-fiction.

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