In 1962 Cuba, MiG Pilots Posed as Tractor Operators

In the tense days before the U.S.-Soviet missile crisis, secrecy was everything.

A ground crew muscles a MiG-21 after a mission.

A ground crew muscles a MiG-21 after a mission.

While working on an upcoming story, I was alerted to Sergey Isaev’s research on the transfer of MiG-21s (and MiG-15 trainers, along with air and ground crews) from the Soviet 32nd Air Guards Fighter Regiment to Cuba in 1962. The deployment coincided with the placement of Soviet ballistic missiles on the Caribbean island, which prompted the Cuban missile crisis in October of that year.

Isaev’s father, Mikhail, was one of the MiG crewman. He had steamed across the Atlantic aboard the Nikolayevsk, part of a flotilla of vessels transporting the men, a few nurses, and their aircraft to Cuba. All the Soviet military passengers were dressed in civilian clothes.

Col Nikolay Shibanov and a youthful Raul Castro

Col. Nikolay Shibanov and a youthful Raul Castro.

According to Sergey Isaev’s account:

All “passengers” were gathered for instructions. The representative drew a picture of “the political moment” and said: ‘ “Comrades, you are here not military servicemen; you are agricultural workers, tractor operators, agriculturists, in no way you here belong to the military service. Remember it!” Therefore, we have turned to “tractor operators”.’

As the flotilla neared the island, the elder Isaev, and others such as Evgueny Vladimirov, aboard the Volgoles, snapped photos of a US Navy P2V Neptune as it shadowed the ships:

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