Fear of Spies stops air route!

Karl Lorentz Kleve

How the fear of spies and spying was a serious hinderance for developing civilian, commercial aviation across the Iron Curtain during the early Cold War.


With the 50-nation strong Chicago Convention of 1944 and the Bermuda Agreement between the USA and UK of 1946, the most important guidelines for civil aviation was established. They continue to regulate aviation to this day. The most basic principle is, that states have absolute sovereign rights over their own airspace. If an airline wanted to establish routes to or through another country, a bilateral agreement between the involved states had to be agreed upon.


The late 1940s saw a flurry of bilateral agreements being made in the West, as interest in international air travel soared. But the Soviet Union was deeply mistrustful of Western intentions. So, it wasn’t until late 1955 and early 1956 that the first bilateral aviation agreements between the Soviet Union and Western nations were signed. The neutral countries Austria and Finland were first. Then came the rest of Scandinavia. The agreements with Norway and Denmark in March 1956 being the first aviation agreements with Nato countries. Agreements which with some later revisions are still valid today.


The last 20 years, aviation has greatly changed. Today, you may more or less establish an airline and start flying routes as you see fit, as long as you uphold certain standards

But this free and easy-going attitude towards establishment of airlines and air routes is definitely a new thing, and even now, it is mainly contained to Europe and North America. In the rest of the world and during the Cold War here, detailed control of aviation was the norm.


One aspect making it difficult to start air routes, was the fear of spies. The idea of letting foreign aircraft access to airspace was anathema for many. During Stalin’s reign, no deal involving regular foreign civil aircrafts into Soviet airspace was possible at all. Only when Khrushchev came to power, the gains of regular air traffic was seen to be greater than the fear of spying.


Even in Norway, so eager to develop commercial aviation into every fiord and every foreign destination, allowing East Bloc countries access to Norwegian airspace was a tough nut. When f.ex. the Chech airline CSA applied for permission to start a weekly route Prague – Oslo in 1952, the Armed Forces HQ was very much against. And the route was terminated after only a few flights.


As it turned out, the fear that commercial aviation could be a cover for spying was not wholly grounded in fantasy. According to historians Norman Comer and John Bessette, some Aeroflot transport planes and passenger planes had cameras and SIGINT gear installed, and collected ELINT on British air defence systems while en route to British.

[1] The Soviets also claimed that Korean Airlines had conducted espionage against the country since the 1970, and used this claim to defend its shooting down of KAL 007 in 1983, and several other aggressive actions against KAL passenger planes.[2]


Also, while not conducting surveillance over Soviet territory, Norwegian airline Widerø did charter out its airplanes to Norwegian Military Intelligence during several operations in the early 1950s. Airplanes from Widerøe, piloted by Widerøe crew would fly agents which Norwegian Military Intelligence had recruited in Finland, in to the wilds not far from the Soviet border. From there the agents would walk over the border.[3]


And as late as in 2016, Sweden expelled a Russian reconnaissance aircraft suspected of spying under cover of participating in a research project. [4]


All aviation agreements with Russia still contain severe limitations on flying over Siberia. Only SAS is permitted, among Scandinavian airlines, which is greatly hampering Norwegian Airlines’ attempts to open Far Eastern routes.


[1] Norman Comer and John Besette, Spyplanes: The Illustrated Guide to Manned Reconnaisance and Surveillance (Minneapolis:Voyager Press 2016), 67. See also , UK newspaper Daily Mail, Archived files show Soviet Union using civil airliners to conduct secret Cold War Spying missions over Britain, 12.28.2012.

[2] Farooq Hassan, A Legal Analysis of the Shooting of Korean Airlines Flight 007 by the Soviet Union, in Journal of Air Law and Commerce 555 (1984)

[3] Olav Riste og Arnfinn Moland, «Strengt Hemmelig» - Norsk Etterretningstjeneste 1945-1970 (Oslo: Universitetsforlaget 1997), 96-101.

[4] Swedish newspaper Dagens Nyheter, Oro för spioneri fick ryskt plan avvisat, 05.18.2016

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Karl Lorentz Kleve is Curator at the Norwegian National Aviation Museum, where he is working with research, collections and exhibitions. He has been the organizers of several academic conferences and has presented papers on conferences in Norway and abroad. He has taught students at Nord University, and gives lectures on aviation history inside and outside of the museum.


For several years, Cold War history have been a special responsibility. Norwegian National Aviation Museum are trying to secure the preservation of what is consider the best historic Cold War facility in Norway: The large subterranean Area 96 at nearby Bodø Air Station. The museum also aims to present the history of the Cold War in Norway in this facility, and in general strengthen the documentation and popular presentation of Cold War history in cooperation with domestic and foreign museums.  Kleve is national contact point for the North European network of Cold War museums and cultural heritage institution, the Baltic Initiative.


Currently he is engaged in writing the history of the Norwegian-Soviet Aviation Agreement of 1956, which is part of a larger research project on tourism and travel across the Iron Curtain, organized by the Universities of Gothenburg and Amsterdam. Among his publications are:


How the Cold War shaped North Norwegian aviation and society, in Michael Suprun, The Cold War in the Arctic: Conference report (Arkhangelsk: Pomor University 2009)

Creating a Cold War Museum in Northern Norway, in Schmidt and von Preuschen, Auf beide Seiten der Mauer – Denkmalpflege an Objecten aus der Zeit des Kalten Krieges (Berlin: Westkreuz Verlag 2005)

Luftforsvaret som infrastrukturutbygger I Nord-Norge under den Kalde Krigen: Case-studie Andøya (Bodø: Norsk Luftfartsmuseum Serie 6/2003)


Tina Andersen