Saturday, March 12, 2016
Capt. Bill Van Horn peered out the window of the RC-135S reconnaissance jet into an Alaska blizzard.
The Cobra Ball II aircraft carrying 24 airmen was attempting to land on the barren Air Force airstrip at Shemya, an island near the western tip of the Aleutians.
Buffeted by a severe crosswind, the four-engine jet wobbled unsteadily toward a cliff at the end of the runway.
Van Horn, sitting just in front of the right wing, felt a bump as the plane scraped something, then lurched upward before hitting the ground.
The landing gear sheared off, and the No. 3 and No. 4 engines fell off. He saw flames out his starboard-side window.
“The belly of the airplane just slammed on the runway,” said Van Horn, an electronic warfare officer.
The plane screeched down the concrete, breaking up as it slid off the pavement’s edge, down a snowy embankment and onto the beach. Van Horn and his crew mates found themselves trapped in the burning wreckage. Some of them wouldn’t get out. Remarkably, 18 survived.
Items from Paul Jeanes' collection of memorabilia include a wooden Coca Cola box that Jeanes dug from the sand on the island of Shemya, multiple 24th Strategic Reconnaissance patches, and black sand from the island of Shemya. Photos by Kent Sievers/The World-Herald
This Tuesday, Van Horn and at least three other survivors will gather at Offutt Air Force Base with others for a 2 p.m. ceremony marking the 35-year anniversary of the March 15, 1981, crash of Cobra Ball 664.
A monument honoring the six airmen who died in the crash has been displayed at Offutt — the center of the Air Force’s recon community — since reconnaissance missions ended there two decades ago. It stands outside the headquarters of the 45th Reconnaissance Squadron, the 55th Wing unit that took over Cobra Ball after the Cold War.
“I’m sure (airmen) walk past it every day and never knew what happened,” said Paul Jeanes, 60, of Papillion, a retired electronic warfare officer, or “Raven,” who helped rescue survivors that day at Shemya.
Survivors and eyewitnesses rarely talked about the crash because of the secrecy that surrounded the Cobra Ball mission during the Cold War. Their job was to fly off Russia’s far eastern Kamchatka Peninsula and monitor Soviet missile tests, then report the results to Strategic Air Command at Offutt.
“You felt like you were doing something important,” said Von Clemence, a Raven who survived the 1981 crash.
The unit — known then as the 24th Strategic Reconnaissance Squadron — was headquartered at remote Eielson Air Force Base, 26 miles from Fairbanks, Alaska. Eielson served as the maintenance base for the two Cobra Ball aircraft, and the airmen’s families stayed there.
It was an urban paradise compared with Shemya, which airmen called “The Rock.”
“The Rock” comprised 2 miles by 4 miles of tundra, with radar and weather stations in a few World War II-era buildings. The Pacific Ocean and the Bering Sea collided in the Aleutians. Shemya was infamous for its terrible weather and was considered by some pilots to be the Air Force’s most treacherous airfield.
“It was always either rain, fog or snow — or all three — at Shemya,” said Clemence, now 68 and a resident of Reno, Nevada.
Cobra Ball 664 on the tarmac at Shemya. Photo by Paul Jeanes
Cobra Ball 664 is refueled in midair over Alaska on its last flight, shortly before it crashed at Shemya island in the Aleutians. Photo by Paul Jeanes
Cobra Ball crews lived next to their aircraft in a pair of hangars alongside the airfield. They entertained themselves with basketball, ping pong, cards, a single-channel television and films screened on a Super 8 movie projector.
A klaxon would summon them to fly a mission, typically in the middle of the night.
“It was kind of like a firehouse,” Jeanes said. “You’d be sitting. Then when the horn would blast, you’d bolt for the jets.”
Crews rotated from Eielson for two-week stints at Shemya.
“Everybody knew it was crap out there,” said David Gerke, a technical sergeant and Morse code specialist on Cobra Ball 664. “I just did it because I loved flying.”
Gerke volunteered for his spot on Cobra Ball 664 the day of the crash. Two crews were scheduled to fly to Shemya to begin a two-week rotation.
Twenty-four airmen flew on the jet that day — 10 more than usual, in part because several Ravens were doing proficiency checks.
Jeanes, Wes Thibodeaux and several other crew members traveled separately on a KC-135 jet tanker that refueled 664 en route and landed at Shemya three hours ahead of the Cobra Ball. The two aircraft had tried before to make the flight but were stymied by bad weather.
They took off about 2:30 p.m. An hour or so into the flight, Jeanes shot a photo of the in-flight refueling. It was the last taken of Cobra Ball 664 intact.
During the flight, Van Horn was giving instruction to a younger officer, 1st Lt. Loren Ginter. Before landing, he sent Ginter to sit in one of the rear seats with several airmen who hadn’t been part of the testing. 2nd Lt. Kerry Crooks, another junior officer who was training on the flight, stayed beside him.
The weather had worsened at Shemya.
“All we could see was snow, all we could feel was the turbulence, and all we could sense was trouble,” Crooks wrote in a 2004 account of the crash called “The Ides of March,” on the website RC135.com.
Gerke was one of eight airmen sitting in the rear of the aircraft.
“The approach was so erratic,” he said. “It seemed almost like we were on a yo-yo. And then we hit.”
Pieces of the wreckage of Cobra Ball 664. The tail section of Cobra Ball 664 separated as it skidded off the Shemya runway.
AC: Yeah, go ahead.
TO: Roger, our weather around here is painting about twenty mile circumference of Shemya. It’s got precip in it. You painting anything up there?
AC: Stand by.
AC: And ah, Golf, Six Six isn’t painting of significant, ah, precip from up here.
TO: Ah, Roger, thank you, and they say it’s moving very slowly.
AC: And Golf, we will take a better look next time, you caught us headed away from the island.
CO: Tower, Foxtrot.
CO: Are the runway lights at max intensity?
TO: That’s affirmative.
CO: Cobra Weather, Cobra One.
CW: Go ahead, sir.
CO: What is the latest, ah, vis reading you have.
CW: Let me check sir.
CW: Sir, I have no change for that five sixteenths, but I will call the observer, ah, and have them take another observation.
CO: Okay, thank you.
CW: Sir, we have light obscuration, fifteen hundred, ah, overcast and one-half mile and snow.
CO: Thank you.
TO: Six Six, Golf.
AC: Go ahead, sir.
TO: Roger. Why don’t you go ahead and get clearance and come on down and try it once?
CW: Cobra One, this is Cobra Weather, the RVR on that is twenty-six.
CO: Thank you.
AC: And, Golf, this is Six. Roger, we’re in a turn now, sir. We’ll call you when we roll out.
TO: Ah, Roger, and give us a call when you are about fifteen out.
AC: Understand, we are cleared to penetrate on this approach?
TO: That’s affirmative.
AC: Roger sir, ah, we’re turning inbound in the holding pattern this time and will be penetrating from twenty thousand.
TO: Six Six Golf, I missed the first part of your transmissions.
AC: Roger sir. We’re turning inbound in the holding pattern at this time and we’ll be penetrating passing WEBBI.
BO: Tower, Ops One on the Crash Net.
BO: RCR reading is LSR 15 and at the taxiway two is also loose snow and 15. You can advise the SAC bird that the loose snow is blowing across, okay?
BO: Affirmative, it s sticking in a few places … okay?
TO: Ah, Six Six Golf.
AC: Go ahead, Golf.
TO: Roger, advise you, ah … are cleared for the intial, and, ah, we’ll make, ah, the final determination when you get close in.
AC: Roger sir, we’re in the descent right now.
TO: Thank you.
UNK: Go ahead, ah, yes.
TO: Ah, yes. This is Jack. Would you pass to maintenance that he is about 30 miles out now and is going to try and get down on this approach, it depends on the visibility. So, might get ready.
UNK: Okay, we’re here, thank you very much.
TO: Six Six Golf.
AC: Go ahead, Golf.
TO: Ah, roger, we are going to make a decision shortly. Ah, pulling out the Cobra file, but just be ready and ah … go ahead and ah … fill in the RVR station above minimum and go ahead and try and put her down. If it looks, ah, bad at all, just take it around.
AC: Roger, Golf, will do.
TO: Six Six Golf, you’re cleared final.
RFC: Exult six six, Shemya final controller, how do you hear me?
66: I read you loud and clear.
RFC: Exult six six you’re loud and clear, also fly heading of one one zero.
66: Roger one one zero.
RFC: On course and on final do not acknowledge further transmissions, eight miles from touchdown; turn left heading one zero five.
RFC: Heading one zero five; drifting left of course; now turn right heading one zero seven.
RFC: Turn right headline one one zero; seven miles from touchdown.
RFC: Wind one two zero at two zero; approaching glidepath; wheels should be down.
66: Roger sir, we’re gears down.
RFC: Turn right heading one one two; begin descent; six miles from touchdown.
RFC: Wind one three zero at three zero; cleared to land.
RFC: Slightly below glidepath; turn right headline one one five.
RFC: Left of course heading one one five.
RFC: Going well below glidepath.
RFC: Turn left heading one one three.
RFC: Five miles from touchdown.
RFC: Turn left headline one one zero.
RFC: Holding well below glidepath; slightly left of course; turn right heading one one five; four miles from touchdown.
AC: Roger. Six Six copies.
TO: Gold, ten miles full stop.
TC: Have a C-135 that crashed on runway one zero, approach end of runway one zero. You copy crash?
Fire dept: Crash copies.
TC: Disaster, do you copy?
Disaster: Yes, copy.
At about 9:36 p.m. the plane clipped some light stanchions just short of the runway. The main landing gear and two right-wing engines then hit the runway and were sheared off. The tail slammed into the ground.
“I saw flames coming down (the aisle) right where we were,” Gerke said. It was the last thing he remembered before blacking out.
The pilot apparently didn’t realize how badly damaged the jet was and applied full power, hoping to take off and go around again.
But the plane was now unflyable. The uneven thrust sent the jet careering down the runway, rotating 180 degrees and sliding sideways down a small hill.
The weakened tail section broke off in a wall of flame.
When the plane stopped, Van Horn dashed out the left overwing exit, thinking Crooks was following.
Van Horn didn’t know Crooks’ right leg had gotten stuck under some heavy electronics gear. Crooks struggled to free himself as smoke and fire filled the plane. It seemed like forever before he jerked free, his kneecap broken and ankle ligaments torn.
Finally he scrambled out over the left wing, flames swirling around him.
Crooks was the last man to escape from Cobra Ball 664 alive.
Across the airfield in their crew lounge, Jeanes, Thibodeaux and several other officers had been waiting through the missed approaches. Suddenly they heard an announcement over the tower frequency.
“The first thing I heard was ‘The plane has crashed,’?” said Thibodeaux, of Papillion, now 59 and a 55th Wing flight trainer at Offutt.
They grabbed parkas and raced to the crew bus and steered it out onto the tarmac. They struggled to see through the heavy, blowing snow.
“We saw pieces and parts of burning airplane,” Thibodeaux said.
The bus stopped on the runway near the flaming wreckage. Suddenly an airman smelling of jet fuel raced onto the bus.
It turned out to be Staff Sgt. Homer Hall, a photo technician who had been sitting in the midsection of the Cobra Ball. He had escaped uninjured from the wreckage.
“Once I got to the bus I let them know there were survivors,” said Hall, now 62 and living in Boerne, Texas. “Their instincts took over then.”
“We went out in the snow to try to pull the rest of them out,” Jeanes said.
Wes Thibodeaux (right), Paul Jeanes (shaking hands) and two other 24th Strategic Reconnaissance Squadron officers are recognized in 1982 for their efforts to save crew members after the crash of Cobra Ball 664. Photo from Paul Jeanes.
The five officers scoured the runway area and found more dazed and freezing men who had escaped via the cockpit hatch and the right overwing exit. Seeing no one else, the rescuers drove to the hangar so those survivors could warm up and get medical treatment.
Just outside the rear of the aircraft, however, Gerke had regained consciousness in a snowbank. The fuselage had broken just a foot behind his seat, and he had been thrown clear of the disintegrating plane.
He looked back toward the wreckage and saw another crewman, Tech. Sgt. Tommie Wood, leaning over, silhouetted against the flames, trying to help Loren Ginter, whose legs were on fire.
“He was throwing snow on Ginter,” Gerke said. “We tried to pull him out.”
Gerke and Wood — who had suffered a broken wrist and broken ribs — freed Ginter from his seat and pulled him a few feet away. Then an explosion tore through the wreck as a fuel tank exploded.
Gerke felt intense heat on his face and later learned he had been severely burned. Leaving Woods to tend to Ginter, Gerke crawled up the snowy slope to an emergency vehicle, which took him to the hangar.
“I was in shock,” Gerke said. “They threw blankets on me. Everybody was staring.”
Meanwhile, after emerging from the wreckage, Van Horn and Crooks had circled around the back of the aircraft. They saw Ginter and pulled him away from the plane.
Van Horn waited with his badly injured student until rescuers arrived with a stretcher, and he helped carry Ginter to a truck on the runway. But the 28-year-old lieutenant died of his injuries the next day.
“The plane burned all night,” Clemence recalled.
1. Capt. Richard Rushenberg
2. 1st. Lt. William Fiedler
3. Capt. David Himmelstein
4. Capt. Joseph Gregory
5. Capt. Theodore Trout
6. Maj. Terry Conkright
7. Capt. Richard Grove
8. 2nd Lt. Kerry Crooks
9. Capt. William Van Horn
10. Capt. Devonde Clemence
11. Capt. Joseph Kettner
12. Staff Sgt. Homer Hall, Jr.
13. Capt. William Maxwell
14. Capt. Bruce Carson
15. Sr. Airman Thomas Stuckey
16. Tech. Sgt. Harry Coogle
17. Tech. Sgt. David Gerke
18. Staff Sgt. Harry L Parsons III, 24
Chula Vista, California
6985th Electronic Security Squadron
19. Capt. Larry A Mayfield, 34
24th Strategic Reconnaissance Squadron
Married; two daughters, ages 12 and 9
20. 1st Lt. Loren O. Ginter, 28
24th Strategic Reconnaissance Squadron
Married; no children
21. Tech. Sgt. Tommie Wood
22. Maj. William R. Bennett, 36
24th Strategic Reconnaissance Squadron
Married; two sons, ages 7 and 6
23. Staff Sgt. Steven C. Balcer, 24
6985th Electronic Security Squadron
24. Master Sgt. Stephen L. Kish, 37
24th Strategic Reconnaissance Squadron
Married; two sons, one daughter
Later, Van Horn, Crooks, Wood and Gerke each received the Airman’s Medal, the Air Force’s highest award for noncombat bravery, for their efforts to save Ginter. Jeanes, Thibodeaux and three other officers on the bus earned Commendation Medals for their actions.
Of the 18 airmen who survived the crash of Cobra Ball 664, nine were injured — Gerke and Crooks suffering the worst of the injuries. It took two days to clear enough debris from the runway to evacuate the injured airmen to the nearest hospital, which was in Anchorage, 1,500 miles away.
Gerke’s eyes were swollen shut from the burns on his face, and tubes in his throat prevented him from talking. His wife, who had stayed in Omaha during his Alaska tour, flew up from Offutt on a military jet, fearing the worst.
Gerke was transferred to an Army hospital in San Francisco, where his hospital room soon filled with cards and telegrams.
After months of excruciating recovery, he was transferred to a finance command at Offutt. He stayed there for a year, ultimately retiring from the Air Force in 1987. He then moved to Atlanta to be near family. He got an accounting job with the state of Georgia. Today, at age 71, he is retired and lives in suburban Phoenix.
He said the burn scars are almost invisible now.
“I was just lucky,” Gerke said.
Crooks hated hospitals. Despite smoke inhalation as well as injuries to his spine, hip, knee, ankle and eyes, he managed to get discharged within a few days to recuperate at Eielson. He left the Air Force in 1987, in part because of the lingering effects of his injuries. He became a university professor in Florida.
Thirty-five years later, he’s still uncomfortable as a passenger on commercial flights.
“My love of flying evaporated,” Crooks said.
There was little mystery about the cause of the crash: a shaky landing, in bad weather, on an airfield with a runway that lacked overruns or shoulders.
“We were just about 3 feet too low,” said Van Horn, 63, now a lawyer in Littleton, Colorado. “If it had been a normal runway it would have just been a hard landing.”
Cobra Ball 664’s flight crew was relatively inexperienced, according to survivors, and the airmen were new to Alaska, which pilots agree is the most challenging place reconnaissance crews fly. In nearly 50 years of Air Force operations, all four serious accidents involving the RC-135s occurred in Alaska.
After the crash of Cobra Ball 664, survivors say, the squadron brought in much more experienced flight crews.
Offutt’s 55th Wing, heir to the Cobra Ball mission, now memorializes the airmen who died at Shemya. The wing hosted ceremonies on the 15th, 25th and 30th anniversaries, and has invited all Offutt military and civilian employees to attend this one, on Tuesday.
Jeanes will be there, too.
“You’ve got guys that gave everything they had to the mission, the country,” Jeanes said. “They deserve to be recognized.”
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The island of Shemya from the air.
ALASKA CRUEL TO RC-135
The Air Force has lost four RC-135 reconnaissance aircraft in nearly 50 years of flying the model. All four crashes occurred in Alaska, at least three of them during bad weather.
Jan. 13, 1969: U.S. Air Force RC-135S, 59-1491 — aka Rivet Ball — was returning to Shemya island from a reconnaissance mission. Upon landing, the aircraft hydroplaned, slid off the ice-covered runway and plunged into a 40-foot ravine. All 18 crew members survived.
June 5, 1969 U.S. Air Force RC-135E, 62-4137 — Rivet Amber — disappeared about 30 minutes into a ferry flight from Shemya to Eielson Air Force Base, Alaska, after reporting it was experiencing vibration. The aircraft had encountered severe turbulence on its previous flight and was flying to its maintenance base to be checked for possible structural damage. All 19 crew members on board died. The wreckage was never found.
March 15, 1981 U.S. Air Force RC-135S, 61-2664 — Cobra Ball II — crashed in bad weather on landing at Shemya following a training flight from Eielson. The plane descended too low and hit the ground just short of the runway. Six of 24 men aboard were killed.
Feb. 25, 1985 U.S. Air Force RC-135T, 55-3121 — Rivet Dandy — from Eielson was flying practice approaches in poor weather at the Valdez Municipal Airport, Alaska. After two uneventful approaches the crew apparently became disoriented and started the next approach 4 miles off course. The aircraft flew into the side of a mountain, killing all three crew members. The wreckage was found six months later.
Sources: Wikipedia; Aviation-safety.net; RC135.com
Weather awful on ‘The Rock’
Shemya is a treeless, windswept island of about 6 square miles near the western end of the Aleutian island chain. Closer to Russia (200 miles) than to Anchorage (1,500 miles), Shemya is called “the Black Pearl of the Pacific” because of its dark volcanic sand. But Air Force personnel who have been stationed there refer to it as “The Rock.”
It has been home to a U.S. military presence only since World War II. The Army built an airstrip there to support operations during the Aleutians campaign against the Japanese, who had occupied islands west of Shemya.
From the 1960s until the 1990s, Strategic Air Command RC-135S reconnaissance jets flew from Shemya Air Force Base, monitoring Soviet missile tests under the terms of the SALT treaties. As many as 1,500 military and civilian personnel were stationed there. Radar and aircraft refueling stations still operate at Shemya, with fewer than 200 people.
The island is infamous for its awful weather. High winds blow almost constantly, sometimes exceeding 100 mph, though temperatures are relatively mild for Alaska because of Pacific Ocean currents. About 75 inches of snow falls there each year, on average. It is frequently foggy, especially in the summer.
When the last 48-member reconnaissance detachment was moved from Shemya to Offutt Air Force Base in 1994, Lt. Col. Rich Wilson, who then commanded the Offutt-based 45th Reconnaissance Squadron, told The World-Herald he wouldn’t miss the wind, fog and cold.
“I’m not sad to see the place go,” he said at the time. “But there is a lot of heritage at Shemya. People are proud to say they flew and landed at Shemya.”
For more information about Shemya Air Force Base and the plane crashes that occurred there, read “A Tale of Two Airplanes” by retired Lt. Col. Kingdon R. “King” Hawes on his website, RC135.com.