Czech fighter pilot recalls Cold War dogfight

Mig 21, photo:

Col. Jaroslav Sramek was signing autographs for airplane enthusiasts in Prague at the weekend as part of the city's aviation film festival. Col. Sramek is best known as the only Czech pilot to have engaged and shot down an American fighter plane during the Cold War.

The incident happened in March 1953 and was described by the official communist newspaper Rude Pravo in the following terms:

"This blatant violation of Czechoslovak airspace by American military aircraft, which occurred on 10 March, is one of a long chain of similar provocations perpetrated by the US air force against Czechoslovak sovereignty."

The incident happened at the height of the Cold War, in which the Soviet Bloc and the West faced each other down on either side of the Iron Curtain. Their respective military forces were constantly probing each other's defences along the geopolitical fault line of Central Europe.

Col. Sramek and his comrades were conducting regular patrols in Russian-made MIG jet fighters on the edges of Czechoslovak airspace, while their Western counterparts followed suit on the other side of the divide.

Such was the nature of their activity that it was only a question of time before some pilot was going to encounter "the enemy:" in mid-air.

This eventually happened to Col. Jaroslav Sramek on 10 March 1953. He can still vividly remember what occurred on that fateful day:

"It happened on that day over the village of Merklín [near Pilsen], I spied a pair of planes, which were not ours. They were F-84s. They were clearly encroaching on our airspace. I reported the situation and I received orders to fire a warning shot. There was no other possibility of apprehending them. I was to detain them and get them to listen to my instructions. Unfortunately, it didn't turn out like that. We were the ones who saw them first, which is always a tactical advantage. But then they saw us immediately afterwards. Straight away they tried to evade us. They banked sharply and flew off at full throttle. But because the MIG 15s were better the F-84s we were able to turn easily and manoeuvre into a position where I could fire a warning shot. The warning shot hit his backup tank on the right-hand side. Fuel started escaping from it. He tried to escape to the south. In view of the fact that I was higher than him I was able to catch him easily and my second round disabled him. After firing the shot I saw flames coming from his craft so I stopped and headed home."

The American pilot, Lt. W. G. A. Brown, managed to eject himself from the plane before it plummeted to the ground, and he survived. The plane itself crashed in a farm around 35 km behind the German border.

The incident sparked off a furious war of words between the East and West, with both sides claiming that the other had encroached on their airspace.

Col. Sramek, for his part, is satisfied that he was simply fulfilling his duties. He is convinced that he engaged the American fighter and fired the crucial second shot over Czechoslovak territory. Although visibility was bad and neither pilot could see exactly where they were flying over, he says that the place where the American plane came down clearly indicates that the trajectory of its descent would have begun behind Czechoslovak lines.