The conditions for overhead surveillance were perfect as Maj. Richard Heyser headed into hostile airspace aboard his U-2 spy plane on the morning of October 14, 1962. It was an hour after sunrise, and there was barely a cloud in the sky.

Heyser had taken off five hours earlier, from Edwards Air Force Base in California, and approached Cuba from the south, making a long loop around the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean. He determined his position by shooting the stars with a sextant and, at 7:31 Eastern Daylight Time, adjusted his course so he was flying almost due north, on a route that would take him over a place called San Cristobal on the western end of the island. He was flying at 72,500 feet, more than twice the altitude of a commercial airliner.

The veteran fighter pilot switched on the camera beneath his cramped cockpit, seeking evidence that would confirm or deny America's worst Cold War fears. Heyser felt the familiar series of thumps as the camera swung back and forth from horizon to horizon, clicking away furiously. Making a photo run was similar to making a bombing run: His main task was to keep the "platform" as steady as possible as he flew over the target.

Taking the pictures was the easy part. Designed to soar to extraordinary altitudes, the U-2 was one of the flimsiest planes ever built. Heyser knew well not to let his eyes stray far from the circular airspeed indicator. He was flying at an altitude known to U-2 pilots as "coffin corner," where the air was so thin it could barely support the weight of the plane, and the difference between maximum and minimum speeds was a scant six knots (seven mph). If he flew too fast, the fragile black bird would fall apart. If he flew too slow, the engine would stall, and he would nose-dive.

He scanned the sky for telltale wisps of smoke from Soviet surface-to-air missiles recently deployed on the island. If he saw a contrail heading in his direction, he was trained to steer an S-pattern, into the missile path and then away from it, so that the missile would zip past him, lacking sufficient power to adjust its course. But while Heyser was well aware of the risks, he had the fighter pilot's gift of feeling somehow invulnerable, protected by the invisible shield of his own good fortune. As it turned out, the air defense crews were either caught by surprise by his flight, or they had been instructed to hold their fire.

The camera continued to thump. In the space of 12 minutes, Heyser snapped more than 3,000 frames.

The following morning, October 15, analysts began poring over giant blowups of Heyser's photos at the CIA's National Photographic Interpretation Center, housed in a dilapidated seven-story building above a car dealership at Fifth and K streets NW. By evening, the photo interpreters had drawn their startling conclusion: The Soviets were in the final stages of deploying intermediate-range nuclear missiles in Cuba.

President John F. Kennedy was still in his pajamas in the early morning of October 16 when his national security adviser, McGeorge Bundy, delivered the news. Kennedy was stunned -- Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev had given him a personal pledge not to deploy "offensive weapons" in Cuba. "He can't do that to me," Kennedy exclaimed. Summoned to the White House to look at Heyser's pictures, the president's brother Robert pounded his fist in his palm and moaned, "Oh shit! Shit! Shit! Those sons a bitches Russians."

Touched off by Heyser's photographs, the Cuban missile crisis brought the two superpowers to the brink of nuclear war. Tensions reached a peak two weeks later, on "Black Saturday," October 27, when a U-2 flown by Maj. Rudolf Anderson Jr. was shot down over Cuba.

Two days after Anderson's death, Heyser found himself in a car with Gen. Curtis LeMay, riding toward the Pentagon. He had just accompanied LeMay to the White House, where he was introduced to Kennedy as the pilot who had discovered the missiles.

The Air Force chief of staff -- who would become the inspiration for the out-of-control

nuclear commander in the movie "Dr. Strangelove" -- was furious with Kennedy over how he had dealt with Khrushchev. Nevertheless, he also saw an opportunity to reap some good publicity for his beloved Strategic Air Command.

"Every fracas deserves a hero," LeMay told Heyser in his gruff voice, lingering on the first syllable of "fracas."

Heyser looked expectantly at the general.

"We decided to make Anderson the hero because he's dead and you're alive," LeMay continued. "You don't have any objection to that, do you, major?"

Heyser felt like saying, "Why, of course not, Mr. Four Star General." But he kept the sarcasm to himself.

"No, sir."

History Is Slipping Away

He is remembering it all now, a determined-looking man with a sharp gaze seated at the kitchen table of his comfortable ranch-style house in the Florida fishing village of Apalachicola on the Gulf coast. The mementos surround him -- grainy black-and-white photos of the missile sites; yellowing newspaper clips about the "Dragon Lady," as the U-2 was known; squadron patches.

And there it is on the wall, the photograph taken in the Oval Office, JFK in a rocking chair listening to the bemedaled LeMay, who is flanked on the sofa by Heyser and two other Air Force officers. Heyser is leaning forward, his gaze fixed on the young president. Scrawled across the photo: "With esteem and best regards, John Kennedy."

Over the years, Heyser has thought a lot about his conversation with LeMay, and the memory obviously grates on him. He believes that far too much attention has been paid to Anderson -- and not nearly enough to the other U-2 pilots who risked their lives to document the deployment of Soviet missiles less than 100 miles from Key West. He is eager to correct early Air Force accounts of the crisis that boosted Anderson's hero status by erroneously claiming that Anderson and he had discovered the missiles together. In fact, Anderson's first overflight of Cuba did not occur until October 15, by which time CIA analysts were already examining Heyser's photos.

After the missile crisis, Anderson received a slew of posthumous honors, including the first-ever Air Force Cross, the service's highest award for gallantry. A campaign is underway in his home town of Greenville, S.C., for him to be awarded a Medal of Honor. By contrast, the other 10 pilots who flew missions over Cuba during the crisis had to content themselves with the Distinguished Flying Cross, a less important medal. While Heyser's own name has gone into the history books, the names of the other pilots never appeared in the newspapers. Most books about the Cuban missile crisis, even ones that focus on the role of intelligence-gathering, contain no mention of their exploits.

For many years, Heyser was unable to talk in detail about the missile crisis because of the secrecy surrounding the U-2 program. Now 75, and in failing health following a stroke, he feels that history is slipping away, and may never be told accurately unless the participants speak out. In particular, he says, he wants to ensure that the other U-2 pilots receive the recognition they deserve.

"The only thing Andy did, and we didn't do," says Heyser, "was that he died."

'A Riddle Wrapped in a Mystery'

The world of 1962, when two superpowers were locked in a struggle that could have resulted in the first-ever nuclear war, was different in many ways from today's world. But in some respects, it is hauntingly similar. Like George W. Bush, John F. Kennedy was preoccupied with threats to the nation's security. Like the war on terrorism, the Cold War was as much an ideological struggle as a military struggle. Instead of the blood-and-guts battles of previous conflicts, Americans were engaged in a new kind of war against a new kind of foe, and good intelligence was essential to winning.

For all the sophistication of American espionage techniques, there was much that Kennedy did not know about the Soviet Union in the fall of 1962. The Soviet Union, in the phrase of Winston Churchill, remained "a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma." Kennedy knew he was engaged in a gigantic test of wills with Khrushchev, but he lacked basic facts about the enemy's capabilities and intentions.

Over the summer, U.S. intelligence agencies had been observing a steady Soviet military buildup on Cuba. There was now no doubt that Fidel Castro, the charismatic guerrilla leader who led his followers out of the Sierra Maestra in 1958 to overthrow the corrupt Batista regime, had thrown in his lot with Moscow. An armada of Soviet ships had called on the island and unloaded vast quantities of military supplies. The big question in the minds of Kennedy and his advisers was whether this military equipment was defensive or offensive.

The CIA chief, John McCone, was convinced that the Soviets were putting offensive nuclear weapons into Cuba in an attempt to shift the strategic balance of power in their favor. U-2 spy planes operated by the CIA had spotted the construction of SA-2 surface-to-air missile sites, easily identifiable by their distinctive Star of David configuration. The most likely reason for installing SA-2s in Cuba, McCone argued, was to protect nuclear missiles from surveillance or bombardment.

Most other members of the administration, including the president himself, could not believe that Khrushchev would take such a high-stakes gamble. Up until that time, the Soviets had never deployed nuclear weapons outside their own country. To place Soviet nuclear missiles in Cuba -- cutting the early warning time for a nuclear attack on Washington or New York from several hours to around 15 minutes -- seemed a reckless provocation.

The only way to settle the debate was to send U-2s back over Cuba, despite the risk of a plane being shot down by an SA-2 missile. (SA-2s had been responsible for the destruction of a U-2 over China the previous month, as well as a U-2 piloted by Francis Gary Powers over the Soviet Union in May 1960.) Since Kennedy wanted to avoid the embarrassment of a clandestine CIA plane being lost over Cuba -- Powers had been a CIA pilot -- he transferred responsibility for the operation to the Air Force. If a pilot were to be shot down, he would say he had been on a routine flight that had strayed off course.

Intelligence officers estimated the chances of a U-2 shoot-down over Cuba at roughly one in six. The same odds, in other words, as Russian roulette.

An Elite Corps Pilots

There was no plane in the world remotely like the U-2. When it was still on the design board, back in 1954, the consensus of engineering opinion was that it was an "impossible" plane to build, let alone to fly. Its construction was a triumph of faith and determination on the part of its brilliant creator, Kelly Johnson of Lockheed, who subordinated everything to a single overriding goal: flying higher than man had ever flown before.

The purpose of the U-2 was to gather information on an enemy's military capabilities through aerial surveillance, a tradition that dated back to the use of observation balloons during the Civil War. The plane would carry no weapons. Its primary defense would be the altitude at which it flew, 30,000 feet higher than the highest-flying Soviet interceptors.

In order to build a plane capable of reaching such altitudes, Johnson needed to be ruthless about reducing its weight. That meant dispensing with many of the basic features of a modern airplane, such as most hydraulic systems, standard structural supports and conventional landing gear. Instead of being held together with metal sheets that passed through the fuselage, the wings and tail were bolted on, meaning that it was easy for them to fall off if the plane was subjected to too much buffeting.

The one area where Johnson was unable to cut corners was the camera, which had to be large enough to identify objects 2 1/2 feet long from a distance of 14 or 15 miles. At one point, he vowed to "sell my own grandmother" for another six inches of space for the camera. He finally settled for a monstrous piece of equipment with a focal length of 36 inches. When fully loaded, the camera contained roughly a mile of film that itself weighed 300 pounds. To maintain the balance of the aircraft, the film was sliced into two nine-inch-wide strips that were spooled in opposite directions and later reassembled.

The plane needed long, narrow wings to gain lift at high altitude. Wingtip to wingtip, the early U-2s measured 80 feet, nearly twice the distance from nose to tail. The sailplane-style wings and light air frame enabled the U-2 to glide up to 250 miles if it ever lost power from its single engine.

Flying this extraordinary airplane required an elite corps of pilots, men who were physically and mentally equipped to roam the upper reaches of Earth's atmosphere, at a time when manned space flight was still in the realm of science fiction. U-2 pilots were halfway to being astronauts. In order to be selected for the program, they needed to demonstrate the "right stuff," a combination of athleticism, intellect and utter confidence in their own abilities.

"Every pilot considers himself above everyone else in the world," says Heyser. But even by that standard, "we all recognized that the credentials required for getting into the program were extraordinarily high."

In 1957, Heyser was among the first Air Force pilots sent out to "the ranch," a remote airstrip in the Nevada desert, to be trained on the new plane. Most of those selected were instructor pilots, with extensive experience in single-engine fighters. The recruits had no idea what they were getting into, since nobody had experience flying the U-2 and its very existence was a closely guarded secret. In theory, they were all volunteers, but when Heyser expressed reservations about signing up for "a pig in a poke," he says, he was told by his commanding officer, "I just volunteered you."

Also known as "Area 51," the ranch would become notorious as the site of numerous alleged UFO sightings, most of which likely were sightings of the U-2. At the time, few people believed that manned flight was possible above 60,000 feet. Seen from below, with the sun glinting off its wings, the high-flying spy plane resembled a fiery object that could only be explained as an extraterrestrial object.

One of the first tests for new recruits was to be placed in a pressure chamber to see if they could adapt to explosive decompression, an ever-present danger for U-2 pilots. If they passed that and other exams, pilots were sent to the David Clark brassiere company in Worcester, Mass., to be fitted for a special partial-pressure suit. The suit was designed to expand automatically as soon as the cabin depressurized, forming a giant corset around the pilot and preventing his blood from exploding into the rarefied air. Some pilots found the suit, and the cramped U-2 cabin, so claustrophobic that they had to be released from the program.

In order to preserve the secrecy surrounding the plane, the Air Force insisted on seclusion. The U-2 squadron was stationed outside Del Rio, Tex., a small town on the Mexican border three hours' drive from San Antonio. The base was surrounded by arid scrub, cactus and sagebrush. The pilots, flight technicians and administrators formed a tightknit community, living side by side in brand-new housing. Junior personnel were assigned air-conditioned duplexes with washer, dryer and carport, all the accouterments of '50s consumer society. The more senior pilots lived in bungalows, on good-size lots. "It was pretty goddamn nice," recalls former U-2 pilot Gerald McIlmoyle. "The Air Force wanted to look after us."

The 4080th Strategic Reconnaissance Wing, which consisted of one U-2 squadron with about 25 pilots, was like a large, rambunctious family. The paterfamilias and wing commander was Col. John A. Des Portes, a former World War II bomber pilot and good old Southern boy. The pilots lived, worked and played together. Their social life revolved around church and bridge parties and backyard barbecues. In the evening, they would sometimes get together to perform skits on Air Force life. On weekends, they would organize trips across the border to Mexico, where they would watch bullfights and buy beer for $2.50 a case.

Heyser's oldest son, Richard, age 7, belonged to the "rat pack," the term given to the neighborhood hell-raisers. The two Anderson children, 5-year-old Rudolf III and 3-year-old James, were more sedate. Almost without exception, the wives were stay-at-home moms. With their Catholic church ties, the Heysers were particularly close to the McIlmoyles. The Air Force would often send Heyser and McIlmoyle on tours of duty together, billeting them in the same room. During their free time, they would head for the golf course. Rudy and Jane Anderson were pillars of the bridge-playing set, together with their best friends, Robert and Marlene Powell, who had children around the same age. The two women would constantly drop in on each other, teaming up to feed the kids and help each other out. When Marlene was pregnant with her third child, and her husband was away, the Andersons rushed her to the hospital when she went into labor.

The pilots were friends, but they were also competitors. According to McIlmoyle, "there was rivalry, no question about it, but not personal animosity." As a group, says Powell, U-2 pilots were "all greedy for flying time. Some pilots [in other units] would brag that they only had to fly 20 hours a month, but we would brag about flying 30 hours or more. We wanted to show off; we were like kids."

An Air Force Poster Boy

When the missile crisis broke, and the Air Force was looking for U-2 pilots to fly over Cuba, most members of the squadron were on assignment away from Del Rio. Some pilots were in Alaska, from where they flew air sampling missions over the North Pole, scooping up debris from Soviet nuclear missile tests for analysis in the United States. Others were in Europe or Asia, flying reconnaissance missions around the periphery of the Soviet Union or China.

The two most experienced U-2 pilots still in Del Rio were Heyser and Anderson. Darkly handsome with a seemingly permanent scowl on his face, Heyser was the senior pilot in the squadron, and had the reputation of being a favorite of Des Portes. They had known each other since the Second World War when Des Portes was deputy commander of the Army Air Corps base in Apalachicola, Heyser's home town. In his junior and senior years of high school, Heyser used to hang out at the base, making friends with the pilots and occasionally taking over the controls of a B-17. Des Portes and Heyser shared another bond. Like Anderson, they were graduates of Clemson University in South Carolina.

Because of his seniority, Heyser says, he could usually count on being picked for special missions and felt no need to lobby his superiors for extra flying time. He remembers asking a colonel from SAC headquarters why his name kept coming up for the most sensitive and dangerous assignments. "You have the most experience," the colonel replied. "You are like a racehorse. We are going to ride you until you fall."

While Heyser affected a devil-may-care demeanor, he was also intensely proud of his accomplishments and known to have a stubborn streak. According to McIlmoyle, his Air Force career would later suffer because he refused to back down in arguments with his superiors.

Anderson, by contrast, was an Air Force poster boy right from the start. Lean and athletic, with dark hair and striking dark brown eyes, he was exuberant and exceptionally competitive. As a child, he built model airplanes and dreamed of becoming a pilot. Flying was his passion and his life. "Imagine, I am able to do this, and get paid," he told his family. His officer evaluations were uniformly excellent, signposting the way to a high-flying military career.

In private, he was always "cutting up and playing the card," according to his daughter, Robyn Lorys, who never knew her father but heard many stories about him from friends and relatives. He was the type of person who would jump out of his second-story college dorm window to catch a roommate's escaped bird or surprise his aunt by dancing a little jig on her doorstep. But at work he was much more serious. Anderson was the kind of pilot known in Air Force parlance as a "scrounger," according to his friend Bob Powell. "You took every mission you could get. You would volunteer for backup if the primary aborted. You had to go."

The Air Force U-2 pilots were also competing with their CIA counterparts. The CIA had a more advanced model of the U-2, with a more powerful engine, which meant that it could fly 5,000 feet higher than the Air Force model and was more difficult to shoot down. Under a hard-fought compromise, the CIA agreed to lend several of its planes to the Air Force for the duration of the missile crisis but would retain control over the photo interpretation process.

Heyser and Anderson flew out to Edwards Air Force Base to pick up the CIA planes. According to his daughter, Anderson had fallen on the ice while on assignment in Alaska a few days earlier, and severely bruised his shoulder. Anderson's medical records show the squadron doctor diagnosed him with bursitis and ordered him not to fly until at least October 15. With Anderson temporarily out of action, Heyser was destined to become the first Air Force pilot to overfly Cuba.

'A Milk Run -- A Piece of Cake'

The countdown to Heyser's flight began the previous day, on October 13. Together with a navigator, he studied maps of Cuba, plotting a course that would take him directly over the SA-2 batteries hidden among the palm trees west of Havana. Intelligence officers briefed him on the threat from the SA-2s and suspicions that they were intended to protect Soviet nuclear missile bases. He then took a sleeping pill, in order to get eight hours' solid rest before his mission.

While Heyser was sleeping, technicians were busy painting Air Force insignia onto the fuselage of the U-2. When he woke up, at 5 p.m. Pacific time, he was given a routine physical exam. Then he was served a high-protein, low-residue meal consisting of steak and eggs, toast and coffee. The idea was to generate enough energy to keep him going during the six-hour flight, but spare him the discomfort of having to defecate in his flight suit.

The Physiological Support Division took Heyser through the preflight rituals, including 11/2 hours of "pre-breathing" pure oxygen, to expel as much nitrogen as possible from his system: If the cabin depressurized at 70,000 feet, nitrogen bubbles would form in his blood, causing him to experience the bends, like a deep sea diver who rises to the surface too quickly.

An hour before takeoff, Heyser was transported to his plane in an air-conditioned van -- it was stifling inside all the gear. He strapped himself into the U-2's single ejection seat, and the canopy was closed. Neatly sewn into the seat cushion was his survival kit, which included flares, a machete, fishing gear, mosquito repellent, a camping stove, an inflatable life raft and a silk banner announcing, in a dozen languages, "I am an American" and promising a reward to anyone who helped him.

The CIA equipped many of its pilots with suicide pills, which they were encouraged to take in order to avoid capture and torture by the enemy. Heyser had no use for the pills. He was convinced "there was no bullet out there with my name on it."

Heyser received the thumbs-up sign, and roared down the runway, pulling the control stick that gave the plane lift. The pogos -- sticks with wheels that prevented the U-2's long billowing wings from scraping the ground -- dropped away. The flimsy plane soared into the sky at a steep angle like some exotic black bird.

Piloting a U-2, Heyser had discovered, was a little like returning to the early days of aviation, when flying was reduced to essentials. With no hydraulics to assist him, Heyser had to use his own arm strength to move the wing flaps, pulling or pushing the E-shaped yoke in front of him in the cockpit. Above the yoke was a round viewfinder that could be used either as a periscope in the down position, to observe Earth, or in the up position as a sextant.

A U-2 pilot needed to combine two contradictory qualities, Heyser felt. In order to sit strapped into an uncomfortable ejector seat for up to 10 hours, he had to transform his body into "a vegetable," shutting down his normal functions. At the same time, his brain was constantly operating at full speed. "Your mind never relaxes. If it does, you're dead."

Instead of flying back to California after his mission over Cuba, Heyser flew into McCoy Air Force Base outside Orlando, in order to hand over his precious intelligence materials as soon as possible. Because of the strangely configured undercarriage of the U-2 -- yet another concession to the weight limitations -- it was unable to make a normal landing. Instead, Heyser had to stall the plane a few feet from the ground, so it performed a kind of belly-flop, plopping onto the runway. A chase car sped alongside, radioing guidance.

Heyser's plane was met by two generals, who personally couriered the film to Washington. "A milk run -- a piece of cake," he told intelligence officers.

A Close Call Over Cuba

The following 13 days were among the most dramatic in world history. Even as Kennedy and Khrushchev frantically looked for ways to pull their countries back from the edge of the abyss, they found it difficult to control their own military machines, let alone the rushing pace of outside events.

Kennedy ordered saturation reconnaissance of Cuba to keep track of the Soviet missiles. Every single U-2 pilot who was not on duty in Alaska or overseas was called into service. The squadron flew as many as six missions a day over the island, searching for the telltale signs of nuclear missiles being readied for action: launchpads recognizable by their peculiar slash marks, fueling and checkout vehicles, communication lines and prefabricated storage bunkers.

The Air Force was so intent on carrying out Kennedy's order that it ignored normal safety precautions. In the predawn hours of October 17, four U-2s took off from Del Rio at 10-minute intervals in a blinding thunderstorm that would normally have grounded such a flimsy plane. The wingtip of the U-2 piloted by Maj. James Qualls barely missed the runway because of strong crosswinds. "We were just about mapping the entire island," he recalls. "Des Portes joked that all he had left [to fly missions over Cuba] were the dregs of the wing."

At McCoy, meanwhile, tensions were simmering between the Air Force "blue suiters" and the CIA support personnel who were responsible for servicing the U-2s and taking charge of the intelligence materials. The agency people were still smarting from what they perceived as a power play by the Air Force in persuading Kennedy to deprive them of the mission. "They were very resentful and made no bones about hiding it," says Anthony Martinez, who served as operations officer for the Air Force U-2 squadron.

According to McIlmoyle, CIA personnel "looked for fault in everything we did." He recalls that a CIA officer reported him to Washington for allegedly displaying signs of nervousness by urinating beside his U-2 shortly before takeoff. McIlmoyle had a good defense: He wanted to spare himself the laborious task of relieving himself aboard the aircraft when he was trying to focus on taking pictures of Soviet missile sites.

On October 25, McIlmoyle returned from an overflight of Cuba with an alarming story about being targeted by an SA-2 missile site near the town of Banes, on the northeast coast of the island. The CIA's U-2s had a device for detecting when they were being observed by enemy radar. When a radar system painted the plane, a yellow light appeared in the cockpit. When a missile locked onto the plane, the light turned red.

The yellow light had already appeared by the time McIlmoyle made a scheduled turn over Banes. As he gently banked the plane, he saw two contrails zip up from beneath him, and explode in the sky above. They looked like SA-2s. There was still no red light in his cockpit. McIlmoyle figured that either his detection system was not working properly or the operators of the SA-2 had fired the missiles blind, without engaging the guidance mechanism, in order to deprive him of the usual warning.

The higher-ups were skeptical of Mc-Ilmoyle's story, he and other pilots recall. A three-star Air Force general who reviewed the electronic intelligence told him bluntly, "You weren't fired at." McIlmoyle, a captain who later rose to the rank of brigadier general in charge of the president's nuclear codes, believes to this day that he was targeted.

If Rudy Anderson was concerned about McIlmoyle's report, he kept his worries to himself. According to his colleagues, he was determined to fly more missions than anyone else, which meant somehow leaping in front of Heyser, who was ahead of him in the rotation. "He was in high gear all the time," recalls Martinez, the operations officer. "He was very compulsive, very patriotic, and very, very dedicated. He was a perfectionist."

According to Heyser, Anderson came to him at one point to ask if he could take over a mission that Heyser had been scheduled to fly. Since Heyser had already racked up a large number of special missions, he says, he was less concerned than Anderson about cramming in as much flying time as possible. He remembers telling Anderson to check with Lt. Col. Martinez, who was responsible for drawing up the roster. "If it's okay with him, it's okay with me." As a result, says Heyser, Martinez "scratched my name out, and put his name on."

Exactly when this incident took place is unclear. Heyser says it happened on October 26, the day before Anderson's fatal flight. But flight records show that Anderson had already caught up with Heyser in number of missions by this point, which suggests that the incident may have taken place earlier. McIlmoyle also has a memory of Anderson going to Martinez on the evening of October 26, expressing an eagerness to fly, and asking to be put on standby the following day. Martinez cannot recall this particular episode, although he says it is "plausible," given Anderson's sometimes "intense" personality.

The following morning, at least three other missions were scrubbed at the last minute, making Anderson the next pilot in the rotation. Capt. Roger Herman had the job of clearing Anderson for takeoff. He followed him up the steps to the plane, and ran through a checklist of 30 or 40 items. He made sure that his oxygen supply was connected properly, and that the maps and "Top Secret" target folder were all neatly stacked by the side of the ejector seat. A final preparation, a "press to test," and a surge of oxygen briefly inflated Anderson's partial-pressure suit, making him resemble the Michelin man and filling up the cockpit. When he was certain that everything was in order, Herman slapped Anderson on the shoulder. "Okay, Rudy, here we go, have a good trip, see you when you get back." Anderson gave a thumbs-up sign as Herman closed the canopy.

Minutes later, Anderson's U-2 roared down the runway and headed toward Cuba.

'Target Number 33 Destroyed'

On Cuba, 40,000 Soviet soldiers -- thinly disguised as tourists in almost identical sports shirts -- were bracing for a U.S. invasion in the next 24 to 48 hours. Castro had spent the previous night at the Soviet Embassy in Havana drafting a personal cable to Khrushchev, urging him to consider a nuclear strike against the United States rather than submit to "Yankee aggression." He had also ordered his forces to begin firing on U.S. planes.

Although they had spent only a few weeks in Cuba, the Soviets were caught up in the feverishly patriotic mood. "Fatherland or death," shouted the banners in the streets. "Cuba yes, Yankees no." "We will destroy the aggressor." Even 40 years later, Soviet veterans who served in Cuba say they were ready to sacrifice themselves for the sake of Castro's revolution.

The commander of Soviet forces in Cuba, Gen. Issa Pliyev, was away from his headquarters when reports arrived of yet another overflight by an American U-2 on the morning of October 27. His deputy, Gen. Stepan Grechko, was in charge. The spy plane was reported to be heading out of Cuban airspace, so he had to make a quick decision. It was impossible to communicate with Moscow, but he believed he already had authority to use all weapons short of nuclear missiles to defend his forces.

"Destroy target number 33," ordered Grechko.

A sudden storm had appeared out of nowhere to drench the battery commanded by Maj. Ivan Gerchenov as the order to destroy the U-2 crackled across the radio. Through the downpour, Gerchenov could barely see the teams manning the missile launchers. In a makeshift shack, the sergeant in charge of the radar system was already tracking the target. He reported the height, speed, distance and azimuth of the U-2 to the gunners who fed the data into the missile's guidance system.

"Use two missiles," instructed Gerchenov.

Buttons were pressed, and, within seconds, the sergeant manning the radar equipment could see two little dots closing in on the target. At first the dots moved slowly. But they gathered speed as they moved across the screen. There was a sudden poof of light in the darkened sky, and Gerchenov could see something falling to Earth.

"Target number 33 destroyed," Gerchenov reported to his superiors at 10:19 a.m., Cuban time.

News of the downing of Anderson's U-2 was viewed in Washington as a sign that Khrushchev was upping the ante in the crisis. Some of Kennedy's advisers speculated that there had been a coup in the Kremlin, and the hardliners had taken over. In Moscow, Soviet military commanders erroneously informed Khrushchev that the order to shoot down the U-2 had come from Castro.

Without accurate information, the leaders of the United States and the Soviet Union were like blind men, stumbling about in the dark.

Unanswered Questions

It was by no means impossible for a U-2 pilot to survive a hit by an SA-2 missile. Back in 1960, Gary Powers had ejected from his plane in just such circumstances. Assuming that Powers was dead, President Dwight D. Eisenhower had described him as a weather reconnaissance pilot who had wandered off course. A few days later, the lie was triumphantly exposed by Khrushchev, who produced the captured U-2 pilot for a staged espionage trial.

Reconstructing events aboard Anderson's U-2 in the minutes leading up to the missile attack is difficult, since he was maintaining radio silence. It will probably never be known whether the red light went on in his cockpit to denote that an SA-2 had locked onto him, and whether he made a last-minute attempt to turn away from the missile, as he was trained to do. But a later autopsy of his body and an examination of the wreckage of the U-2 leave little doubt about what happened next.

The missile was fitted with a proximity fuse, designed to detonate the warhead as soon as it came within striking distance of its target, spraying shrapnel in all directions. Several pieces of missile shrapnel sliced through the cockpit, piercing the back of Anderson's helmet and his body suit. Other U-2 pilots believe that the direct hit from the shrapnel probably killed him instantly. In the event that it did not, he would have died within a few seconds from either the loss of oxygen or the shock of depressurization.

His plane plummeted to the ground not far from the SA-2 missile site. A week later, the Cubans handed over Anderson's body, still dressed in the flying suit, to a United Nations representative, along with his personal possessions. These included photographs of his two young sons and wife Jane, pregnant with their third child.

'Black Saturday'

Back at Laughlin Air Force Base, outside Del Rio, the wives of the U-2 pilots had little information about what was going on over the skies of Cuba. Their husbands often left the base for temporary tours of duty, without revealing very much about the nature of their mission. The president had appeared on television at the beginning of the crisis to announce that he had ordered intensified air reconnaissance of Cuba, so it was not difficult to guess where the men had gone. But the wait was agonizing.

The women were left to fend for themselves, stockpiling canned food and taping up their windows in case of a Soviet attack. As they tried to preserve a semblance of routine, there was one sight that encapsulated all their fears: a chaplain and a colonel walking up the driveway in full dress uniform with serious expressions on their faces.

Jane Anderson had already been through this ghastly routine. A few months before, the Air Force had reported that Rudy had been killed in a U-2 crash during a refueling exercise. It turned out to be a false report. There had been a mix-up in the manifest, and another pilot had died. Shortly before the Air Force officers showed up on Jane's doorstep to deliver the news, Rudy called to let her know that he was okay. It took some time to sort out the confusion. According to Marlene Powell, the incident seriously rattled Jane, who had been "a really relaxed person" up until then.

On the afternoon of "Black Saturday," when the Air Force staff car appeared in the officer housing complex, the women peeked out their windows, looking to see where it was headed. Everybody breathed a sigh of relief when the car passed their houses. The officers asked to speak to an anxious Marlene, who assumed that something had happened to her husband. Instead, they asked her to accompany them across the street.

When the officers appeared at Jane's door, she ran into the bathroom and refused to come out. At this point, all that was known was that Rudy had failed to return from a mission over Cuba. There was still no confirmation that he was dead. Marlene struggled to comfort Jane through the locked bathroom door.

"Don't get worried," she told her friend, who was stifling her sobs. "There's still hope."

When Jane finally reappeared in the living room, an Air Force doctor wanted to give her a drug to calm her nerves. Marlene took the doctor aside. "Don't give her anything," she whispered. "She's pregnant."

Jane Anderson later told her daughter, Robyn, that she could not bring herself to believe that Rudy was dead. "She was under the impression that he was not flying at the time," says Robyn Lorys, who was born 7 1/2 months later. It was not until later that night that Jane resigned herself to the awful truth. According to Lorys, her mother "never thrived again," even though she remarried nine years later. She died in 1981.

"She more or less didn't want to have anything to do with the Air Force after that," recalls Marlene Powell. "She felt that if he hadn't been in the military, it wouldn't have happened. She was pretty bitter at the end. It was like I hardly knew her."

According to family friends, Jane refused to have anything to do with the official Air Force representatives at her husband's funeral in Greenville. Heyser says he was assigned to escort Jane on the plane ride from Del Rio to Greenville, but she turned on him angrily and said, "It should have been you and not Andy."

A Special Type of Courage?

Some five years ago, Heyser received a letter from a retired Greenville architect named Jack Parillo seeking his support for a campaign to award Anderson the Medal of Honor. The idea struck Heyser as "ludicrous," and he wrote Parillo back to tell him so. Anderson would be "turning over in his grave" with embarrassment if he knew about the effort, Heyser says.

But Parillo was persistent. Even though he never knew Anderson, he felt a bond with him as an Air Force Reserve officer, Clemson graduate and resident of Greenville. Now 73, he has become consumed with the story of the downed U-2 pilot, and spends much of his time firing off letters to Air Force officials and members of Congress, arguing the case for Anderson to receive the nation's highest military honor. He sees Anderson as the sacrificial victim of the missile crisis, the man whose death brought the leaders of the two superpowers to their senses. Alarmed that the shoot-down could provoke a U.S. invasion of Cuba, and a possible nuclear exchange, Khrushchev agreed to remove his missiles the following day. In return, Kennedy publicly pledged not to invade Cuba and privately promised to withdraw U.S. missiles from Turkey. The world had stepped back from the brink.

Since the beginning of World War II, the Medal of Honor has been awarded only to those service members who demonstrate courage in combat "above and beyond the call of duty." For example, Lt. Col. James H. Doolittle won the medal for leading a daring bombing raid over Tokyo from an aircraft carrier in the Pacific in the months after Pearl Harbor. The question is: Was Anderson simply doing his duty, or was he displaying a truly special type of courage when he flew his U-2 over Cuba on "Black Saturday," knowing there was a good chance of being fired on by Soviet surface-to-air missiles?

The other U-2 pilots agree with Heyser. "Getting killed does not entitle you to a Medal of Honor," says McIlmoyle. "He knew the threat, we all knew the threat." Only one of the surviving pilots, Charles Kern, supported Parillo at first, and he had second thoughts when he learned that none of his comrades was in favor. Without the backing of the other U-2 pilots, the Medal of Honor proposal seems unlikely to go anywhere.

Not surprisingly, the Anderson family is appreciative of Parillo's efforts. From discussions with her mother, Robyn Lorys is convinced that her father knew he was likely to be killed over Cuba but nevertheless "felt compelled to do what he had to do." At one point, she says, he went to one of his squadron commanders and said, in a matter-of-fact tone of voice, "I'm not going to make it back from one of these missions." The commander gently reprimanded him. "Don't talk like that, Rudy, or I will have to pull you."

"He had an understanding that this was part of his destiny," says Lorys. "He had his whole life ahead of him, a wife, two kids, and a baby on the way, and yet there he was, flying kamikaze."

A Moment Remembered

In October 2001, on the 39th anniversary of "Black Saturday," some of Anderson's fellow U-2 pilots and members of his family gathered at Laughlin to dedicate a new training center named in his honor.

The speakers included Robyn Lorys's 8-year-old daughter, Anna, who wrote out a speech describing how proud she was of her grandfather. McIlmoyle was chosen to deliver the main address. The scent of the sagebrush, the view of the old firehouse and control tower, the mountains beyond, all reminded him of the old days, when Laughlin was the center of U-2 reconnaissance operations.

As McIlmoyle approached the rostrum, there was the deafening roar of a plane taking off, soon followed by the familiar sight of a dark, elegant silhouette banking steeply into the brilliant blue sky. McIlmoyle blinked back tears. For a brief moment, he felt he would be unable to go ahead with his speech. The spectacle of the U-2 pulling away from the assembled dignitaries in a salute to the only American victim of the Cuban missile crisis was almost identical to his memory of Anderson's last takeoff.

It had been a gorgeous fall day, and both McIlmoyle and Heyser were out on the golf course at McCoy Air Force Base, relaxing after two weeks of back-to-back missions. As Anderson's plane took off, the men paused in their game to watch it soar. McIlmoyle had found himself feeling a little irritated with Anderson for pushing for extra flying time. Like Heyser, he believed that a pilot should fly the missions he was assigned with "total and absolute dedication," but there was no point needlessly putting yourself in harm's way by asking for extra sorties.

As the U-2 disappeared behind the southern horizon, McIlmoyle turned to Heyser.

"He can have all my damn missions if he wants. I don't care. I've already been shot at."

"He can have all mine, too," McIlmoyle remembers Heyser replying. "I don't care either."

Michael Dobbs is a reporter on The Post's National staff. He will be fielding questions and comments about this article Monday at 1 p.m. on