A little-known episode from the waning days of the Cold War was finally declassified and brought into public view in 2018, when four Swedish pilots received U.S. Air Medals from the Air Force for their actions in June 1987.
The SR-71 Blackbird is an American advanced strategic reconnaissance aircraft – less euphemistically known as a “spy plane” – that was tasked with keeping watch on the Soviet Union’s borders. Many of its flights took place in international waters over the Baltic Sea, giving the mission route the nickname of the “Baltic Express.”
The SR-71’s effectiveness lay in its high-resolution cameras, which allowed it to take pictures of key Russian bases along the Russian coast from a great height. One lucrative target was the Soviet Navy’s Northern Fleet, stationed year-round on the Kola Peninsula near Murmansk – which the SR-71 pilots were able to photograph from international waters, to the constant frustration of the Soviet Union.
The Soviets nearly had their chance for revenge, however, when, on June 29, 1987, a Blackbird flying the Baltic Express route over Swedish airspace experienced an engine failure. As per standard procedure, the plane descended to 25,000 feet, where it was promptly met by four Swedish Saab 37 Viggen jets, which escorted it out of Swedish territory until it met with American forces.
The importance of the Swedes’ actions is important when considering the geographic context. The Baltic Sea was, and remains, a fairly small area split between major competing powers: Germany (then divided between West and East), Sweden, Finland, Poland, and the Soviet Union.
An accidental airspace violation from a damaged plane would not have been out of the question; worse, if the plane had accidentally flown into the Soviet Union, the result would have been an utter disaster for the United States. By safely escorting the plane away, and preventing any outside powers from approaching the crippled jet, the Swedes were ultimately able to stave off any conflict between the two superpowers and possibly prevent an international incident.
A video was taken of the ceremony, conducted in Stockholm, in which the U.S. Air Force presented the four Swedish pilots with Air Medals. One of the two SR-71 pilots from that day was also present; the second sent in a video message expressing his gratitude to the Swedish pilots.
In addition to their medals, the four Swedes also received a painting depicting the incident.
Trevor Filseth is a current and foreign affairs writer for The National Interest.