Friday, November 8, 2013

The Legand Of The American Spy Plane

The American "spy" plane
Tucked into a corner inside the Gjirokaster Castle in southeastern Albania sits the wreckage of a U.S. Air Force airplane.  Every four to five years these castle grounds play host the national Albanian folk festival, a large scale event celebrating the country's rich folk lore that essentially puts Gjirokaster on the international map.  A large performance stage dominates the open space within the castle walls reminding visitors of the festival's presence even during the off years.  (Rumor has it that the festival was supposed to have taken place this past fall but will now be held next fall instead- hence the "every four to five year" description).  While the rather well preserved castle grounds are also home to a Bektashi tomb, an artillery gallery, a haunting Communist era prison, and the National Museum of Armaments, it is the wreckage of the American plane that attracts the most attention.

The story of how the plane came to be in Albania varies depending upon whom you ask.  A placard near the plane provides a bi-lingual (Albanian and English) explanation that this American spy plane was forced to land at Rinas Airport in Tirana during December of 1957 after developing mechanical problems and flying off course.  The pilot was later "returned" to the United States.  1957 found the world in the midst of the Cold War so propaganda around the downed plane was over the top.  By the time the plane was moved to the Armament Museum in 1969 it had been labeled as the "American spy plane" and cited as an example of the external threats that Albania's Communist (and extremely paranoid) leadership claimed were trying to destabilize and over throw socialism in Albania.  

A more likely version of the story says that the plane did develop mechanical problems while flying over Albania and made an emergency landing after requesting permission from Albanian authorities.  Was the pilot spying on Albania?  Unlikely, but it sure does make for a great story and played into the fears of the time.  Even today, over half a century later, with Albania being a close ally of the United States, the ambiguous language at the site of the plane wreckage speaks volumes.  Wording such as "forced to land" and "returned" to the United States are definitely open to interpretation.  Did the pilot choose to land his plane on his own to avoid crashing or did the Albanian military force the plane to come down?  Was the pilot a spy or simply flying his assigned mission that happened to involve going over Albanian air space?  Who knows where the true story lies?  

History is often open to interpretation and visitors to Gjirokaster are able to interpret the history of the American spy plane as they wish.  

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