Thirty-one years after the fact, the four Swedish pilots have received recognition in the form of US Air Medals presented by the American military.
“It feels great to receive a medal for something that happened so long ago. We are quite proud of what happened,” Roger Möller, one of the four former pilots honoured on Wednesday, told TT.
Monday, June 29th, 1987, was a day like any other for people in Gotland. But above them, there was a drama playing out in the sky with potentially global consequences.
US Air Force pilots Duane Noll and Tom Veltri were flying a routine reconnaissance mission over the Baltic Sea when the right engine of their high-tech SR-71 Blackbird aircraft suddenly went out.
The aircraft is the fastest airbreathing jet in the world and relies on its incredible speed and ability to fly at high altitude to avoid enemies but with the loss of the engine, it quickly lost both height and speed. In the course of mere minutes, it fell from about 22,000 to about 6,000 metres and slowed from around 3,000 kilometres an hour to just 700.
Noll and Veltri realized that they had to get back to their base – if they could even make it before crashing. Just before 3pm, the plane entered Swedish airspace northeast of Gotland. It flew over the oblivious people of Gotland below before again exiting Swedish airspace.
“We had done this time and again in simulations – managing the emergency was the first step,” Veltri told TT.
“Shoot us or force us to land”
Although they wouldn’t discover this until later, the Soviet Union had spotted their jet and had sent several fighter aircraft in pursuit.
“They had orders to shoot us down or force us to land,” Veltri said.
At around 3.15pm, Veltri looked out of his window and saw two little dots approaching quickly.
“We immediately thought that they were Soviet planes. But when they came closer we saw that there were two Swedish Viggens. Then we started breathing more normally again. We were hugely relieved. We immediately knew we were safe as long as they stayed with us,” Veltri said.
The two Swedish fighter aircraft, JA 37 Viggen from the F13 fleet in Norrköping, began to escort the American Blackbird. The Swedish pilots were Roger Möller and his colleague Krister Sjöberg.
“When I realized that it was a Blackbird, I thought it was fun to see it so close, and from above for a change!” Möller laughed when recalling his actions to TT.
Two more Swedish pilots to the rescue
But the Swedish planes, which had been flying training missions nearby, had to return to base to refuel. Two new Viggens were then dispatched from Ängelholm, piloted by Lars-Eric Blad and Bo Ignell.
“I could immediately see that there was something wrong with the SR-71 and that it was flying with just one engine. But it was amazing to encounter an SR-71 so close up,” Blad said.
He joked that he and his three colleagues involved in the mission that day are likely the only Swedish pilots to have ever flown past the famously fast SR-71.
Blad and Ignell escorted the Blackbird into Danish airspace where Danish fighter aircraft then took over. The Americans Noll and Veltri eventually landed safely at an American base in West Germany.
The details of the Cold War air drama were classified until just last year.
On Wednesday, the four Swedish pilots were honoured at a ceremony in the US Embassy in Stockholm. Möller, Sjöberg and Blad received their US Air Medals in person, while Ignell was unable to attend. The medals were presented by US General Major John B. Williams.
In attendance was Veltri, who expressed gratitude to his Swedish allies.
“I can’t say enough about these gentlemen. I am so amazingly grateful for what they did, but also for the opportunity to recognize them in the fashion we are doing. What these guys did is truly monumental,” he told US military media outlet DVIDS.
Noll was unable to attend in person but sent a video message.
“I want to thank you for your actions on that day. We will never know what would or could have happened, but because of you, there was no international incident. The US Air Force did not lose an irreplaceable aircraft, and two crew members’ lives were saved,” his message said.