5 Military Aviation Incidents That Threatened U.S. Secrets

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Iranian officials have proudly proclaimed they are building a replica of the U.S.-built RQ-170 Sentinel drone plane that crashed in Iran in December 2011. Whether the Iranians actually have the capability to reverse-engineer that top-secret American technology is a matter for debate, but U.S. officials are closely monitoring the situation. The incident is certainly not the first time the crash of a U.S. military aircraft has sparked concern in the Pentagon over America’s enemies learning about the country’s state-of-the-art technology. Here are five previous U.S. military aviation incidents where technological or tactical secrets were at risk of being compromised.


5. U.S. Surveillance Plane Held Hostage in China

The Hainan Island incident sparked the first big challenge of President George W. Bush's tenure.

The U.S. Navy EP-3 that landed on Hainan Island after collision with a Chinese jet; Fair use.

Months before 9/11, President George W. Bush faced his first real test as president with the Hainan Island incident. On April 1, 2001, a U.S. Navy EP-3 surveillance plane collided with a Chinese fighter plane that had been shadowing it off the coast of China. The Chinese jet crashed into the ocean, killing the pilot, but the heavily damaged American plane made an emergency landing on a small island in Chinese territory. During the descent and for several minutes after landing, the U.S. crew worked furiously to destroy sensitive intelligence information and equipment before it fell into Chinese hands. China held the 24-person crew for 11 days, then released them after the U.S. issued a letter of “regret and sorrow.” Some observers at the time worried that the Chinese inspection of the plane allowed it to identify U.S. surveillance targets, enabling the Chinese to prepare future countermeasures to block surveillance.


4. F-117 Nighthawk Stealth Plane Shot Down Over Serbia

An American stealth fighter shot down over Serbia in 1999 might have provided the techological secrets behind a new fighter unveiled by China in 2011.

An F-117A Nighthawk similar to one shot down over Serbia in 1999.

On a moonless night over Serbia in March 1999, Serbian forces using a Soviet-made surface-to-air missile shot down a U.S. F-117 Nighthawk stealth fighter. The pilot safely ejected and was quickly rescued, but the plane crashed relatively intact. U.S. military leaders debated sending a bomber to destroy the plane’s wreckage but changed their mind when they noticed civilians gathered about the site. Later, Chinese and Russian agents were allowed to survey the wreckage and in some cases even buy parts of it from farmers. Some in the intelligence community believe the Chinese used information from the wreckage to help them build their prototype Chengdu J-20 stealth fighter, which made its first flight in 2011. Wreckage from the plane is on display in the Museum of Aviation in Belgrade.


3.  U-2 Spy Plane Shot Down Over the Soviet Union

The U-2 incident sparked an international spat between the United States and the Soviet Union.

Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev views wreckage of crashed American U-2 spy plane.

The United States is still using a modified version of the venerable U-2 spy plane that first came to the public’s attention after one was shot down on May 1, 1960 by a surface-to-air missile while flying over the Soviet Union on a secret reconnaissance mission. The incident caused an international uproar and fueled Cold War tensions. Up to that point, the U.S. denied that it had violated Soviet airspace conducting these flights. The Soviets convicted the pilot, Francis Gary Powers, of espionage, but he was released less than two years later in a prisoner exchange. Ironically, the U.S. recovered the first film from a reconnaissance satellite on the day Powers was sentenced. By the late 1960s, the U-2s had been replaced by the legendary SR-71 Blackbird.


2. Stealth Helicopter Abandoned After the Bin Laden Raid

The Osama Bin Laden raid was the first time anyone outside the U.S. special operations community had seen the United States' new stealth helicopter.

The rotor from the stealth helicopter used in Osama Bin Laden raid; © European PressPhoto Agency, Fair use.

When U.S. Navy SEAL Team 6 members killed Osama bin Laden in Pakistan on May 2, 2011, it gave the U.S. a tremendous psychological and tactical victory in the War on Terror. However, there is one aspect of the story that left U.S. officials wringing their hands: the loss of one of their top-secret stealth helicopters. After a hard landing sheered off the helicopter’s tail, the Navy SEALs set off explosives inside the copter in an effort to destroy the top-secret aircraft, but as they ran out of time, they couldn’t access the tail section that had fallen outside the Bin Laden compound walls. Until this operation, these extensively modified MH-60 Blackhawk helicopters were a closely guarded secret in the special operations community. Experts analyzing the available photographs and video of the tail section have speculated that the copter featured modifications like a noise-suppression cap on the tail rotor, blade modifications, anti-radar paint and fuselage panels to decrease the radar signature. In a move reminiscent of the 1999 shoot down of the F-117 over Serbia, China took a keen interest in the wreckage and Chinese engineers were reportedly allowed by Pakistan to study the wreckage before Pakistan returned the helicopter to the U.S. a few weeks later.


1. Spy Plane Crashes in Utah

The crash of a top-secret A-12 spy plane threatened to reveal the existence of Area 51.

Workers clean up wreckage of a crashed A-12 spy plane in 1963; CIA photo

At the height of the Cold War with the Soviet Union, the U.S. constantly pushed the envelope on developing planes capable of conducting reconnaissance missions over Soviet territory. The CIA’s A-12 OXCART, the forerunner of the SR-71, was the state of the art in 1963, but on May 24, one of them experienced a catastrophic failure during a test flight and crashed in the desert in Utah. The pilot ejected and parachuted to the ground in the vicinity of the crash site. A few curious civilians attempted to approach the wreckage, but the pilot told them the plane was carrying a nuclear payload. CIA agents warned local law enforcement to steer clear of the site. The CIA’s role in covering up the incident involved far more than just the A-12 crash; the aircraft had been developed out of the now legendary top-secret Area 51 in Nevada, which to this day the federal government denies officially exists. The agency developed a cover story, that an Air Force F-105 had crashed, and held to that story until the incident began to be declassified in 2007.

Written by

Mike Phelps earned a B.A. in history from the University of Connecticut and an M.A. in military history from Norwich University. He published a book about the War on Terror called A Short History of the Long War.