I stumbled across this episode of PBS’ American Experience this week. It had a special meaning to me because of my father’s brief involvement in the story.
Nikita Khrushchev, the Soviet dictator, made his first visit to the USA at the invitation of President Eisenhower in September 1959. His plane, larger than any in the US fleet, landed at Andrews Air Force base.
As the officer in charge of aircraft maintenance, my father was responsible for getting a staircase built that would reach the high door of the Russian plane. But the Soviets stonewalled him on providing specs of the plane.
Dad’s hunch was they were planning to exploit this for propaganda value–the TV cameras showing the pathetic Americans didn’t have a ladder big enough to reach their mighty plane.
Eventually he got the numbers from an American intelligence source and got the job done. It didn’t matter though because Khrushchev flew non-stop from Iceland and were so low on fuel his pilot had to land before he could make a turn to face the plane toward the news media and gallery.
Dad is now 94 and not feeling well, but when I told him about seeing the documentary he recited the specs on the plane door from memory “22 feet, 4 inches with tires fully inflated” and another figure for partially inflated.
I was ten years old and delighted that because of Dad’s position our family was invited to tour the plane. My memories are that the Russians were very nice to us, they gave me a Soviet star (like the plastic flight wings they give kids today) and they gave me some Russian cigarettes.
My parents were both smokers at the time, so I knew what cigarettes were like. But the Russian version was 1/4 tobacco, 3/4 hollow paper tube.
As for the documentary, there are some priceless moments. One features Khrushchev appearing at a lunch in Hollywood with the glitterati. He complains to them sourly about being denied a trip to Disneyland. Look for the interview with Marilyn Monroe about her thoughts on the event.
If you have access to the PBS Channel on Amazon Prime or another streaming service, you can watch this on your TV.