Richard Stephen Heyser dies at 81; spy plane pilot took first photos of Cuban missile launch sites in 1962
From Times Staff and Wire Reports
October 12, 2008
Richard Stephen Heyser, a U-2 spy plane pilot who took the first photos of ballistic missile launch sites during the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, died Monday at a nursing home in Port St. Joe, Fla. He was 81.
A resident of nearby Apalachicola, Fla., Heyser had suffered a series of strokes in recent years.
The retired Air Force lieutenant colonel said in a 2005 interview with the Associated Press that no one was more relieved than he that the crisis ended peacefully. He said he did not want to go down in history as the man who started World War III.
"I kind of felt like I was going to be looked at as the one who started the whole thing," Heyser said. "I wasn't anxious to have that reputation."
President Kennedy announced to the world on Oct. 22, 1962, that the photos proved that the Soviet Union was building secret sites for nuclear-tipped missiles 90 miles south of Key West, Fla. The crisis ended six days later, when Soviet Premier Nikita Krushchev agreed to withdraw the missiles.
Heyser, who was 35 when he made five flights over Cuba in nine days, was among 11 Air Force U-2 pilots who took reconnaissance photos. Two were killed: One was shot down and the other died when his plane crashed off Key West. Another pilot was killed in a crash while training for the Cuban mission.
CIA pilots had earlier taken photos of antiaircraft missile launchers in Cuba. The Air Force pilots then were assigned to search for suspected sites of offensive missiles that could strike the United States.
Born April 3, 1927, Heyser was reared in Apalachicola, a Florida Panhandle town on the Gulf Coast. His father was a Coast Guard auxiliary pilot.
As a teenager, Heyser decided he wanted to fly after watching pilots training for World War II service at nearby Tyndall Field. He joined the Army Air Forces in 1944 and after the war graduated from what is now Florida State University.
In 1952 he began Air Force pilot training and flew combat missions during the Korean War. He later served two combat tours during the Vietnam War. He retired in 1974 after 30 years of service and returned to Apalachicola.
Heyser is survived by his wife of 54 years, Jacquelyn, and three sons, eight grandchildren and a sister.