For two years in the early 1980s I was assigned to the 2nd Armored Cavalry Regiment as an intelligence officer. The unit’s peacetime mission was to patrol the border between West Germany and Czechoslovakia/East Germany. The patrols were conducted by troops on foot, in vehicles and in helicopters like the AH-1 Cobra (shown above). I left Germany in the fall of 1983 but given the staggered assignment pattern of the army at the time, many of my good friends were still in the unit the following spring when a little-known but very dangerous incident occurred.
On Good Friday (April 20, 1984) a 2nd ACR Cobra helicopter that was flying along the heavily wooded, lightly populated and very hilly border with Czechoslovakia unknowingly strayed into that country’s airspace. The pilots realized there was something wrong when they were attacked by two Czech Su-27 Floggers with cannon fire. The Cobra evaded and retreated back into West Germany, escaping without any damage.
The initial reports from the American pilots to their headquarters (where my friends were working) was that the Czechs had attacked them while in West German airspace. This caused quite a stir that quickly reached all the way to the Situation Room at the White House while the soldiers on the ground began breaking open boxes of live ammo. Soon a West German Border Police official called his US counterpart and asked “Why did one of your helicopters just fly into Czechoslovakia?” In an age before GPS devices, that was the first indication our side had that the helicopter had been on the wrong side of the border.
The crisis quickly deescalated. Supposedly President Reagan passed along a discreet apology to the Czech government for the incursion. A recent email from a friend who remained in the military through the end of the Cold War put the incident in a historical perspective. Here’s part of what he wrote:
And retrospect puts this all in a bigger perspective. Allegedly Andropov, in 1983, thought that Reagan was preparing a decisive first strike on the USSR, and in the West we didn’t know how close the Soviets were to being completely overcome with paranoia from border incidents and other actions that really weren’t intended to be hostile.