Lt. Col. Stephen Heyser, the U-2 pilot who shot the first photographs of ballistic missile launch sites in Cuba during the 1962 missile crisis, died Oct. 6 at the age of 81.
Col. Heyser said, in a 2005 interview, that nobody was more relieved than he that the crisis ended peacefully. He said he had no desire to go down in history as the man who started World War III.
On Oct. 22, 1962, President John F. Kennedy announced that Col. Heyser’s photographs proved the Soviet Union was building secret sites for nuclear missiles only 90 miles from Key West. The six-day crisis ended after Soviet Premier Nikita Krushchev ordered the missiles withdrawn from Cuba.
Col. Heyser, who was 35 when he made five flights over Cuba during a nine day period, was among 11 U-2 pilots who took reconnaissance photographs of the missile sites. Two were killed: one shot down over Cuba, the other when his plane crashed off Key West. It is not known to this day exactly how many other Navy and Air Force reconnaissance flights took place during the crisis, all at very low levels and very high speeds.
CIA U-2 pilots already had shot photographs of Soviet anti-aircraft missile launchers in Cuba. The Air Force pilots were assigned to look for missiles that could strike the United States.
Col. Heyser was a native of Apalachicola, Florida, where he lived at the time of his death. He joined the Air Force in 1944 after watching World War II pilots training at nearby Tyndall Field. He flew combat missions during the Korean War and two combat deployments during the Vietnam War. He retired in 1974 after 30 years of service.