When Aviation Week Was Accused of Treason -- The Back Story Revealed

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Our posting earlier this week about the uproar over Aviation Week’s 1957 revelation that the U.S. was tracking Soviet missile launches from a secret radar in Turkey received a lot of attention — and unearthed the story behind the scoop.

Craig Covault, a longtime space editor who joined the magazine in 1972, says the story had been written by Phil Klass, Aviation Week’s legendary avionics editor. “Phil showed me this story in the early 1970s and confided to me that it was input from Geoff Perry at the Kettering Grammar School in the UK that kicked off the stateside reporting,” Covault wrote to me this week.  Perry was the well-known satellite tracker who would later be credited with discovering the top secret Soviet Plesetsk launch site. 

“The mild-mannered Geoff had deep ties with both U.S. and UK intel – as well as the sleuthing of his own students,” says Covault. “Phil said Geoff passed along that a radar in Turkey was doing important space intel tracking, so Phil dug into it further.”

Klass’s piece caused an uproar and prompted a national security advisor to President Dwight D. Eisenhower to accuse Aviation Week of treason and urge advertisers to boycott the magazine. Says Covault: “Phil laughed hard when he related to me that the “reason” had been kicked off by Perry’s school kids in the UK.”

Discuss this Blog Entry 8

on Aug 26, 2016

Grammar school kids should be allowed to run (or walk) for office. We might just be able to understand what they are saying.

on Oct 21, 2016

For folks reading this article, it may be worth noting that the phrase "grammar school" in the UK does not refer to a school for very young students, as it does here in the USA, but instead it is a type of selective secondary school, high school level (in modern US terms, so-called "prep" school are the closest match). Significant, basic research in the sciences, especially astronomy was not uncommon at British grammar schools decades ago. They educated the best and the brightest of Britain's high school age students. The number of grammar schools in the UK has declined significantly since a peak in the 1960s. More here: [there was supposed to be a link to a news article from the BBC here but the screwed-up posting system here at AW-dot-com won't permit it EVEN IF the offending prefix is removed as requested]

on Aug 26, 2016

There was an instance during WWII when a letter to a popular aviation magazine by a reader revealed significant knowledge of a still "secret" bomber. Alarmed security agents tracked down the author demanded to tell them who had told him. Eventually they listened to the boy in his early teens as he told them of piecing the story together from various news articles.

Alas Geoff Perry and Philip Klass are long dead and the Kettering satellite tracking group long dispersed so we may never know how what Perry knew and how Klass acquired the details in the article which most certainly could not have all come from Perry.

For those younger than ancient. The Kettering satellite tracking group and Jodrell Bank's Bernard Lovell were often sound sources on subjects relating to space launches and satellites when US sources were constrained from comment

There was also the Judica-Cordiglia brothers who spun tales believed only by the most credulous.

on Aug 27, 2016

On Oct 4, 1957 Sputnik was launched, and the United States went into a complete uproar that is hard to even imagine today. Not that we don't have even worse problems today, but back then the mood was deadly serious about what to do about the Soviets. Nobody can express it better than my cousin General George C. Kenney in an interview with Mike Wallace eight days later. The video is easy to find. AW survived, and so have we, but the cloud of terror has never really disappeared.

on Aug 27, 2016

I remember the hysteria well. As a kid who waited anxiously for the next Tommorrowland show in 1955 I was delighted to hear of Sputnik. Spent cold nights trying to see it. Sputnik 2 was easily visible. The reason I later learned was Sputnik 2 didn't separate from it's booster. It went from a dash to a dot and back as it tumbled coming up from the south west and vanishing into to the north east.

The brouhaha was incredible. It was as if folks had been told the end of the world had been announced. Columnists like the Alsop brothers predicted a massive sneak attack by ICBMs was imminent. President Eisenhower, who had access to our intelligence but could not reveal it, tried to talk reason to the public but his lack of hysteria was interpreted by many as a sign he was getting senile.

The democrats were all over the administration accusing Ike of fatally weakening America, of treasonable budget cuts. There were panicked calls to "catch up" from people who clearly didn't know an Aerobee from a Nike.

Part of the problem was the paranoid degree of security in force at the time. The USAF and FBI were trying to stop people from watching missile launches at the Cape. A really idiotic effort for the obvious reasons. The day launches were visible for many, many miles and the night one easily seen from Miami.

Unless they were a missile fan Americans didn't have a clue what we were doing and while they shrugged when the Russians tested an ICBM in August the simple Sputnik of October and Muttnik a month later caused terror. Americans in general had no clue about Atlas and Titan (or for that matter even Snark). We didn't have a satellite in orbit so we had to be hopelessly behind.

The final blow was when Vanguard Test Vehicle 3 blew up in December. The President's press secretary had without approval announced it was a satellite launch when it was really just a first all-up test. The fact that it happened one day before the 16th anniversary of Pearl Harbor only added to the mood of impending doom.

The success of Explorer I in January helped though it only added to attacks on the Eisenhower administration for backing Vanguard and "preventing" von Braun from launching a satellite in 1956. That Ike wanted a "civilian" satellite launched first to establish a legal "freedom of space" precedent before our spy satellites was unspoken. Ike was actually relieved when he first heard of Sputnik because the Russians had set the precedent for him.

As usual secrecy denied the Russians little in the way of basic knowledge of our missile program, but left the American public sadly ill informed.

Now, 59 years later, I remember the Sputnik brouhaha when ever the hysterical old ladies of booth sexes start running around like their hair is on fire over some perceived crisis, which when inspected is only based on ignorance and hype.

on Sep 5, 2016

Thanks for providing a unique and valuable perspective on these events. Lots of important details I've never seen before. Kudos-

on Aug 27, 2016

In 1957 I was in the first grade and starting my comic book collection. A couple years later I sent away for the Estes Industries Corporal Rocket, and I was all worked up about it. Then one day a letter came saying due to where I lived they were restricted from selling me rockets that could potentially start fires. I was heart broken. I already had the red plastic Atom Rocket that used water as fuel, and was said to reach 300 feet into the air. I don't think mine went anywhere near that high, but it was cool!

on Sep 27, 2016

This story is wrong.

Geoff Perry started analysing the Soviet space programme in 1965 so he could not have been the source of the Turkey information in 1957.

The quote from Craig Covault refers to Geoff Perry and the Kettering Grammar School Satellite Tracking Group's 1966 (fifty years ago this year) revalation of the existence of Plesetsk. Someone has concatenated the two stories.

I know.... because I was a member of the group in Kettering at the time.

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