Not long after noon, in brilliant sunshine over the tumbled mountains of eastern Turkey, a US. Air Force C-118, the military version of the Douglas DC-6, was cruising at 19,000 feet. Its mission, at least according to the official log: "routine transport." Its first stop: Tehran. In the cockpit, a rookie navigator watched for the slash of blue below him that would be Lake Van. It was the point at which pilot Luther Lyles would ease the C-118 southeast into the internationally recognized air corridor to Iran. The lake, shimmering under a thin layer of cumulus clouds, finally came up miles ahead. Lyles made his turn as scheduled. Far ahead was what looked like Lake Urmia, in Iran. In fac4 it was not Lake Urmia at all, but the Caspian Sea. Luther Lyles’s sleek C-118, in other words, had drifted deep, deep inside Soviet Armenia. In the rear of the C-118, Maj. Bennie Shupe had no idea of the mistake. He was unwinding after a stint in the pilot’s seat when he spotted a fighter plane coming up fast on his right wing. Turks or Iranians, Shupe thought, unruffled. But when a second fighter joined the first, Shupe saw it was from neither Iran nor Turkey: The slate-gray jet bore the unmistakable red star of the Soviet MiG. Hostilities commenced almost immediately, the MiGs firing in quick succession. Lyles saw his No. 2 engine go dead on his left wing, a hole as big as a desk in the engine housing. Within seconds, the plane was on fire. "It scared the hell out of us," recalls Col. Dale Brannon, the C-118’s copilot, "because all this time we thought we were over Turkey." Major Lyles ordered the crew to jump, but only five men could get free. Colonel Brannon, Maj. Robert Crans, Maj. Bennie Shupe, Airman 2nd Class Earl Reamer and Airman 2nd Class Peter Sabo made it clear of the crippled plane. Four others - Major Lyles, Capt. James Kane, Lt. James Luther, Sgt. James G. Holman - were trapped by the intense heat and flames. It remained to them, in the face of continued Soviet attack to set the plane down on a crude airstrip.

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Shot down on June 27,1958, over Soviet Armenia, Col. Dale Brannon recalls the mission, the crew (right) and the battles between the superpowers that caused the shootdowns. The crew was released after days of interrogation. 

With Major Lyles at the controls, the C-118 scraped along the rough tarmac before the fuselage finally broke in two, a charred shell. The tail, intact, tilted crazily toward the sky. Amazingly, after nine days of interrogation by the Soviets, the crew was released, set free on the Soviet-Iranian border. "I cried like a baby, "said Brannon. "I never expected to get out of there alive." Back in the United States, Major Lyles was courted by the press for a firsthand account of his exploits. He signed a sworn statement instead, refusing to grant any interviews at all. Concluded Samuel Klaus, in a confidential memo to the Pentagon: "The less Major Lyles says about this case, the better for everybody. "Though it was not, strictly speaking, a H ferret flight, Luther Lyles’s doomed C-118 was bound up intimately in the secret American espionage campaign against the Soviet Union. So sensitive was the plane’s mission, in fact, that Washington said nothing about the shootdown until 18 hours after officials in Moscow revealed it. When the news finally broke, officials in Washington scrambled to patch together a cover story. According to their version, the C-118 was ferrying supplies to the U.S. mission in Tehran when it was blown off course by thunderstorms. These are the facts of the matter: The C-118 was no ordinary cargo plane but a specially designated courier aircraft for the Central Intelligence Agency. In Soviet hands, the plane’s cargo would have been especially dangerous. "It was fortunate that the crew lived and the plane was destroyed," Samuel Klaus wrote shortly after the incident, in a memorandum classified as secret, "because the case would have been much worse for us had the plane landed and its contents been taken." There is no question that the C-118 was carrying sensitive intelligence information. What remains unclear is what it was — and whether the Soviets got their hands on it. Three intelligence officers who participated in the C-118 flight told US. News that the plane was operating under U.S. Air Force cover to deliver papers detailing a covert operation to U.S. intelligence officials in the region. Two sources believe that the C-118 was carrying documents from the U-2 spy program. Retired Col. Fletcher Prouty, who provided Air Force support for CIA operations during the cold war, says the plane was a VIP aircraft outfitted for CIA Director Allen Dulles. Three CIA officers who worked on the U-2 program were aboard when the plane was shot down. Moreover, the C-118 had taken off from Wiesbaden, Germany, a major Air Force base out of which the CIA operated, and it was scheduled to stop at Peshawar, Pakistan, a known U-2 base. "The whole thing was U-2," Prouty says. "This was Dulles’s plane and these were his U-2 people on board." Prouty has gained a reputation as an extreme believer in conspiracy theories, but Maj. Bennie Shupe, who was aboard the C-118 and familiar with the U-2 program, believes that the plane was carrying extremely sensitive information about the U-2 flights. Says Shupe: "I’d go with Prouty on that." Even now, U.S. intelligence officials will not discuss the C-118 incident in detail. Col. Dale Brannon was the highest - ranking CIA officer on board the aircraft when it was shot down. Brannon denies that the plane was carrying information about the U-2 program. The plane, he concedes, was carrying documents detailing another top-secret intelligence operation. "It was some awful important information," Brannon says. "There were papers that could have told the Russians what we were doing." Whether the files concerned the U-2 or not, the crucial question was whether they came into Soviet possession. Samuel Klaus, in a memorandum obtained by U.S. News, raises the possibility that the Soviets lured the C-118 into the airspace over Armenia with bogus radio signals — precisely because of the valuable intelligence information aboard the plane. "This may have resulted from Soviet foreign espionage’s knowledge of the kind of cargo the plane was carrying," Klaus wrote. As to what became of the secret documents, Klaus offers this: "There is a question whether the manifests of the cargo were not dispersed into the airspace of Armenia through the cargo door (after the plane came under attack)." Bennie Shupe says he is sure of one thing: The Soviets didn’t get their hands on any of his secret files. As he drifted to Earth beneath his billowing parachute, Shupe ripped up all his incriminating papers. Then he ate them, one by one.

SS 2000