The Time Air Force One Took Evasive Maneuvers To Defend Itself Against Syrian MiGs

President Trump’s semi-secret trip aboard Air Force One to Iraq has grabbed many headlines this week. The iconic plane’s special flight into Iraq, which was recounted quite dramatically by the President himself, reminded me of a far more intense incident that occurred 45 years ago in the skies over Syria—an obscure event in aviation and U.S. presidential history that few seem to know even occur. 

During the Nixon Administration, back in 1974, it was decided that the President would attempt to open up better relations with Syria. In true Nixon fashion, he took to the skies aboard Air Force One—Boeing VC-137Cs at the time—to travel to Syria to meet with President Hafez Al Assad face-to-face as part of a multi-leg trip through the Middle East. 

A number of geopolitical events precipitated this historic diplomatic encounter. In 1967, U.S.-Syrian relations were put on ice following the Six Day War, but The Agreement on Disengagement between Israel and Syria that was signed in May of 1974 allowed for high-level diplomatic ties between Washington D.C. and Damascus to be restored. There were high hopes in the Nixon Administration that a stronger relationship between the two often at odds countries could drastically cool tensions in the region and lead to a longer-lasting peace between Israel and Syria, as well as some of its other Arab neighbors. 

On June 15, 1974, with the stage set for a historic detente, Air Force One approached Syrian borders on its way to Damascus for the highly anticipated visit. As the VC-137 passed into Syrian airspace, four camouflaged MiGs appeared seemingly out of nowhere and began forming-up off Air Force One’s wing. Air Force One’s captain immediately acted to defend the iconic aircraft and its high-profile passengers. 

Nixon aboard Air Force One. , George Mason University

Air And Space Magazine describes the strange encounter as such:

Air Force One pilot Colonel Ralph D. Albertazzie, who, fearing attack, banked violently right. For the next seven minutes, Albertazzie flew a series of evasive maneuvers, including a steep dive. 

Remembering the incident years later to reporter Kenneth Walsh, author of Air Force One: A History of the Presidents and Their Planes, CNN political analyst David Gergen, at the time a Nixon aide who was on Air Force One, said he wondered if the passengers would survive. He and others had been thrown to the floor.

VC-137C Cockpit, AOPA

The whole incident was a big and dangerous misunderstanding. White House officials already in Damascus had been told that the Syrian Air Force had planned to give Air Force One and honorary escort as it crossed into its territory, but nobody had informed Air Force One’s crew about the high-flying welcome wagon of sorts. After attempting to evade being shot down by the MiGs for seven long minutes—pushing the Boeing 707 derivative to the edge of its envelope and probably beyond—air traffic controllers informed Air Force One that the MiGs were not hostile and were there just as a formality as described to the White House advance party. 

One of the long-serving and very historic VC-137C that served multiple presidents. , USAF

The flight continued on to land safely in Damascus where Nixon was treated to a full state welcome on the tarmac. A New York Times article published the following day describes the reception:

When Mr. Nixon’s plane landed here in the late afternoon, he was given a 21‐gun salute. The road leading into Damascus was lined with soldiers in camouflaged combat uniforms and with fixed bayonets. The Golan Heights could be seen in the golden haze to the right as the limousine drove out of the airport.

Nixon and Assad meet on the tarmac in Damascus after a harrowing ordeal in the skies. , National Archives

Nixon never publically recounted the terrifying moments in the sky that day, but he had privately told reporter and author Kenneth Walsh that it really did scare him. 

As for the diplomatic mission, both leaders made official statements about their high expectations for a new era in relations between the two countries during the visit:

In an exchange of remarks after dinner, President Assad told Mr. Nixon, as had the other Arab leaders this week, that the chances of peace depend on a just settlement of the Palestinian question.

“The only lasting and durable peace in this region would be a peace that would terminate Israeli occupation, restore the land to its people, remove the grievances inflicted upon the people of Palestine and assure them of legitimate national rights.”

He then told Mr. Nixon that his visit “will mark the beginning of a new phase of relations between our two countries, a phase based on mutual respect, unselfish cooperation and adherence to provisions of the United Nations Charter.”

Mr. Nixon, noting that he was the first United States President to visit Syria, said in his reply that although he did not bring “any instant solution” to the Middle East, “I can tell you that the United States is committed irrevocably to working for a just and equitable solution.”

Sadly, stable, long-term, and highly-productive relations between Syria and the United States would never come to pass. In the current decade, under the purview of Hafez Al Assad’s son, Bashar Al Assad, Syria has descended into civil war and now a long list of factions has their fingers in the conflict and in Syria’s uncertain future. 

But one thing is certain, those MiG pilots got one hell of a bizarre air show by surprise in the skies over Syria on that hopeful day in June nearly half a century ago.

Contact the author: