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RC-135 History: The Hidden Hero of the Skies

RC-135V/W Rivet Joint on the ramp during OIF
RC-135V/W Rivet Joint on the ramp during OIF

Background

This article was originally written for an air power theory course given at the University of Nebraska at Omaha in December 2009. At the urging of my professor, I present this piece to further spread the knowledge of this little known platform. While many technical aspects are kept at the highest national security level, here are the data based upon findings supported by facts rather than fiction. I post this on the 29th anniversary of the Cobra Ball II (CBII) crash at Shemya AFB, Alaska in reflection of the six aircrew members who lost their lives tragically doing what they loved: flying.

Humble Beginnings

The RC-135 platform saves lives and affects military actions worldwide by using unique software suites to assist in collecting intelligence data. The Cold War raged on in 1959 with a stalemate between the United States and the Soviet Union. Weapons development in direct retaliation to each countries’ programs became commonplace. The United States recognized a need to collect data on Soviet Union weapons testing in order to prepare their own weapons for a potential strike. The KC-135 Stratotanker, delivered in 1957, received consideration and eventual modifications to facilitate the growing need to monitor threats from the Soviet Union’s weapons and potential advancements. The Big Safari program, with its highly sensitive projects, became the focal point for aircraft entering the reconnaissance world.

The Stratotanker and C-135 Stratolifter, each made by the Boeing Company since 1957, were originally designed to facilitate mid-air refueling and to transport troops and equipment. Modified KC-135s and C-135s have flown as command posts, electronic reconnaissance, photo mapping, and purely transport aircraft. A KC-135A received modifications in 1961 to quickly collect on an announced Soviet Union detonation test of an alleged 100 megaton thermonuclear device called the “Tsar Bomba” under the Big Safari program. Despite suffering scorching on the fuselage, the converted aircraft succeeded in its mission by bringing back photographs of the test as well as electromagnetic data to confirm the United State’s suspicions on the bomb’s actual size and how it worked. This proved that the KC-135 had a valuable mission in supporting national level intelligence agencies with viable airborne collected data.

The C-135 variant adapted to photo mapping reconnaissance by the Air Photographic and Charting Service served a short life as a reconnaissance aircraft. But with the technological advances in satellite imagery, the aircraft quickly lost its edge. Due to this development, the RC-135A fleet quickly changed to staff transports after equipment removal.

The RC-135B, the “as is” delivery configuration straight from Boeing, never saw operational use since it lacked mission gear. Upon delivery, these ten aircrafts went straight to the Martin Aircraft Company’s location in Baltimore, Maryland for mission gear installation under the Big Safari program’s watchful eye. Once the aircraft received mission gear and official clearance as mission ready, the designator changed to RC-135C Big Team. The mission equipment included cheek pods on the aircraft’s front fuselage to house the Automated Electronic Intelligence Emitter Locating System (AEELS), AN/AS-1 electronic intelligence (ELINT) system, as well as numerous antennae and cameras set up in the former refueling pod in the aft section. Once the RC-135C received operational status, Strategic Air Command (SAC) at Offutt Air Force Base (AFB), Nebraska retired the aging RB-47H from active reconnaissance duties.

Rivet Stand / Rivet Quick Platform

The KC-135R Rivet Stand/Rivet Quick configuration moved the KC-135A platforms (converted in the original Soviet mission in 1961) to update their equipment and change the antenna configuration on the upper spine on the fuselage. The aircraft retained the tanker radar dome nose all except for 58-0126, which received the elongated nose — referred to by crew members as the “hog nose” or “snoopy nose.” Tail 126 became the last aircraft converted into this configuration in 1969 to replace crashed tail number 59-1465. The spinal antennas made these jets easily distinguishable from normal KC-135s. Tail 465 crashed on July 17, 1967 during takeoff on a training mission when the pilot over-rotated at a low altitude and stalled the engines. One aircrew member died out of the five who were on board.

RC-135 Rivet Brass in flight
RC-135 Rivet Brass in flight

Rivet Brass

KC-135A-II, later known as the RC-135D Rivet Bras, delivered to Eielson Air Force Base, Alaska in 1962 for the Office Boy project under Big Safari, included tail numbers 60-0356, 60-0357, and 60-0362. The Rivet Ball, tail number 59-1491, never underwent this configuration despite persistent rumors to do otherwise. This aircraft, however, did not see an operational mission until 1963. The aircraft did not have the refueling boom which made them essentially C-135As. Their primary mission included flights along the northern Soviet Union and shuttle missions between Eielson AFB and Royal Air Force (RAF) Upper Heyford in Oxfordshire and RAF Mildenhall in Suffolk, United Kingdom. In January 1967, the official name changed from Office Boy to Rivet Brass, coinciding with the Rivet Ball and Rivet Amber (a renaming from Wanda Belle and Lisa Ann respectively). The Rivet Brass aircraft received reconfiguration to KC-135Rs after the RC-135 fleet expanded in the late 1970s with increased power turbofan engines.

RC-135 Rivet Amber taking off
RC-135 Rivet Amber taking off

Rivet Amber

The RC-135E Rivet Amber was a unique aircraft originally designated C-135B-II and modified under the Lisa Ann project with tail number 62-4137. It was named after the Big Safari program director F.E. O’Rear’s daughter and had large phased-array radar systems that weighed in at over 35,413 pounds. At $35 million dollars, Rivet Amber was the single most expensive aircraft in the entire United States Air Force in 1960. The advance radar capability allowed crew members to track objects “the size of a soccer ball from a range of 300 nautical miles.” The radar required an additional auxiliary generator and a heat exchanger to provide enough power for operation and to keep the aircrew safe. The Rivet Amber and Rivet Ball, designed to work together, collected data on missile testing from the Soviet Union launching onto Kamchatka Peninsula and the Pacific Ocean. The Rivet Amber’s first operational mission occurred on September 28, 1965, almost two years after Rivet Ball became operational. This team went on in harmony until 1969 when crashes took both aircrafts down.

Rivet Ball

The RC-135S contained several program names: Nancy Rae, Wanda Belle, and Rivet Ball for aircraft tail number 59-1491. She started an asset for the Air Force Systems Command then pushed to SAC in October 1963 as Wanda Belle. In January 1967, the program name changed again to Rivet Ball. Rivet Ball contained the hog nose that other RC-135s are famous for along with ten large windows on the right side fuselage for the tracking cameras and a black wing to reduce glare on the cameras’ film. Unlike other variants, Rivet Ball had a large dome mounted on the top center for the Manual Tracking position. The aircraft became known as the first KC-135 of any variant to perform a reconnaissance mission as well as the first to photograph multiple reentry vehicles on a Soviet Union missile test.

The Rivet Ball, the first RC-135S, had tail number 491 and was nicknamed “the iron pumpkin” by crewmembers. It crash landed at Shemya AFB, Alaska on January 13, 1969 from hydroplaning off the runway heading twenty-eight into the forty foot ravine. Eighteen crewmembers on board walked away from the wreckage without any fatalities. Ice covering the runway caused the crash shortly after midnight. The aircraft commander Major John Achor managed to shut down the aircraft’s alternators before leaving the runway which, in the crew’s opinion, saved the jet from crashing into the telephone poles supporting runway ten’s approach lights. Video taken by Captain Robert L. “Viper” Brown shows the dramatic crash’s aftermath with the fuselage cracked at the wings’ leading edges and the wings themselves bent upward from the ground. Fortunately, no one chose to ride in the Manual Tracker position in the dome, otherwise, the crash would have proved deadly. The reference to pumpkins comes from Cinderella and the coach turning back into the pumpkin at midnight. Reportedly, Captain Ellis S. Williams, the second navigator, responded to a Major from the control tower in the Shemya infirmary that the aircraft turned into a pumpkin on the initial touchdown and that the runway not being cleared the last 2,000 feet did not make a difference. The Rivet Ball served seven years faithfully collecting on the Soviet Union missile launches without fail until the aircraft slid off the runway and ended up at the base dump. It was a total loss, except for her electronic equipment and the eighteen lives she saved on landing.

Rivet Ball's demise
Rivet Ball's demise
The Iron Pumpkin
The Iron Pumpkin

Rivet Amber: Her Disappearance

The Rivet Amber, using call sign Irene 92, departed Shemya AFB, Alaska for Eielson AFB, Alaska. The aircraft, loaded with nineteen people onboard, left early in the morning on June 5, 1969 for routine maintenance. Approximately forty minutes into the flight, Irene 92 called Elmendorf AFB, Alaska reporting a potential emergency. Transcripts from the radio communication mentioned vibrations in flight with no other description and the pilot ordering the crew to use oxygen while broadcasting on the radio. After almost an hour of repeated microphone keying without any clear message, radio silence occurred. From takeoff to the last known communication, including microphone keying, an hour and thirty minutes passed. After Rivet Amber failed to check in on a regularly scheduled basis, Colonel Leslie W. Brockwell, the 6th Strategic Reconnaissance Wing (SRW) commander, initiated the search and rescue operation. Aircraft and crews from the 6th SRW combed the waters between Shemya AFB to the Alaskan mainland. The search aircraft flew as low as 300 feet above the water looking for anything indicating the Rivet Amber, such as crew members, aircraft remains, oil slicks on the surface, life rafts, and parachutes. The search raged on for almost two weeks with no indication. The aircraft just went completely missing. She is presumed lost somewhere in the Bering Sea and her disappearance remains a mystery.

The Cobra Ball

Losing both the Rivet Ball and Rivet Amber in 1969 set not only the aircrews that worked with both aircraft emotionally back but also the intelligence network and the ability to monitor the Soviet Union missile threat. The Big Safari program scrambled to replace the downed aircraft with a viable, technologically advanced replacement. In the interim, the Navy and Army pitched in with the EA-3B SkyWarrior to cover the gap. The answer for coverage, the RC-135S Cobra Ball, tail numbers 61-2663 delivered October 1969 and 61-2664 delivered March 1972.

The Cobra Ball, preceded by Rivet Ball, retained the black wing for reducing optical glare. The aircraft, loaded with measurement and signal intelligence (MASINT) collection equipment and paired with special electro-optical instruments, observed ballistic missile flights at long distance. The aircraft originally started as C-135B before extensive modifications. This aircraft configuration did not escape without peril at Shemya AFB, Alaska.

RC-135S Cobra Ball on the ramp at Shemya AFB, Alaska
RC-135S Cobra Ball on the ramp at Shemya AFB, Alaska

The Last Flight of Cobra Ball 664

On March 15, 1981, tail number 61-2664, known as Cobra Ball II, departed Eielson AFB, Alaska with twenty-four crewmembers. The crew awaited the weather at Shemya AFB, Alaska to clear before setting out for home. A KC-135 preceded the “Ball” by about three hours and landed in good weather without a scratch. As the Ball made her descent to the difficult landing at Shemya AFB, the weather turned and left the aircraft in low visibility, fog, blowing snow, and sleet. Crosswinds on the runway complicated the difficult landing on “the Rock.” The tower cleared the aircraft to land in these sketchy weather conditions. Fraught with turbulence, the aircraft came down in the darkness looking for a little rock in the churning Bering Sea. The jet came down too low and off the runway too far to land. The pilot, knowing he could not abort the landing, executed a shallow right turn in a desperate attempt to save the aircraft. The black wing struck the cliff at 02:30 traveling over 200 miles per hour with both engines exploding on impact. The jet, overweight and fatally wounded, skidded down the runway in multiple sections and came to rest off the runway. The tail section completely seared off and five men died on impact. Dr. Kerry A. Crooks recounts the event in “The Ides of March,” (available on Kingdon Hawes’ website) that Bill Van Horn and himself pulled Loren Ginter to safety before the aircraft exploded. Sadly, Ginter became the sixth and final casualty from the twisted and broken bird when he succumbed to his injuries in the hospital.

RC-135 Cobra Ball. Note the traditional black wing.
RC-135 Cobra Ball. Note the traditional black wing.

Replacement Cobra Ball

The replacement Cobra Ball, delivered in 1983, took over the first aircraft spot with tail number 663 reverting to the second. The new aircraft carried the same configuration as the recently updated tail number 663. The RC-135X Cobra Eye, tail number 62-4128, received usage as a telemetry and range instrumented aircraft helping to track Intercontinental Ballistic Missile reentry vehicles. The program itself deactivated in 1993 and all mission equipment removed from tail 128. After realizing the need for another Cobra Ball in late 1995, tail number 128 received a new lease on life as Cobra Ball II and pushed tail number 663 to become Cobra Ball III. Tail number 128, delivered in November 2000 to Offutt AFB, Nebraska, became the last jet added to the Cobra Ball arsenal. Two jets are always maintained in the fleet with the third carrying a backup status while undergoing upgrades.

Rivet Card

The RC-135M Rivet Card temporarily replaced the Big Team variant with more Elint capabilities and the additional communication intelligence (COMINT) capability. The aircraft, six in total, operated from Kadena Air Base (AB), Japan during Vietnam. The aircraft gathered Signals Intelligence (SIGINT) from the Gulf of Tonkin as well as Laos under the program Combat Apple. The Rivet Brass augmented Rivet Card during down time. All six aircrafts received Rivet Joint modifications by the early 1980s.

Rivet Quick

The KC-135R 55-3121 Rivet Quick received modifications under Cobra Jaw in 1970. Unique external features included spinning receivers that looked like fangs under the nose, a blade antenna on the fuselage, teardrop antennas on the aft fuselage before the horizontal stabilizers, and a trapeze looking structure where the boom is located. In the early 1970s, the platform again underwent phasing to the RC-135T Rivet Dandy to supplement the RC-135C/D/M fleet. The aircraft went through planned maintenance to upgrade intelligence equipment as well as airframe extending preservation. In 1973, the Rivet Dandy demoted to the trainer mission and its SIGINT gear removed to KC-135R 58-0126. It retained the hog nose but lost the trapeze below the tail and never received a boom. The aircraft received common modifications such as engine upgrades suitable to other KC-135E tankers. It crashed on February 25, 1985 on approach to Valdez, Alaska with three crewmembers on board. The crash site remained hidden until August 1985.

RC-135U Combat Sent
RC-135U Combat Sent

Combat Sent

The RC-135U Combat Sent, with currently existing tail numbers 64-14847 and 64-14849, received modification from Big Teams from June 1971 to December 1971. The aircraft configuration is employed as a scientific and technical ELINT platform. The Combat Sent collects signals on a wide range spectrum and allows for both automated and manual collection. The time spent between the Big Teams and Combat Sent configuration suggests the aircraft might have sat in storage. These aircrafts, since their conversion, have seen missions all over the world including during Operation Desert Storm, Operation Enduring Freedom, and Operation Iraqi Freedom.

Rivet Joint

The RC-135V/W Rivet Joint, modified from the RC-135C/M, started conversions in 1973, to receive updated SIGINT sensor suites. These allowed the crews to detect, identify, and geo-locate signals with ease up to 130 nautical miles away. The aircraft retained the Big Team’s AEELS and hog nose. The RC-135V variants are modified from the Big Team platform while the RC-135W variants are from the Rivet Card. The platform uses sophisticated equipment to facilitate intelligence gathering for real time data. The Rivet Joint, referred to as RJ, has a similar appearance to the Cobra Ball, minus the black wing. There are sixteen RJs currently in the fleet. Since 1990, an RJ has been in Southwest Asia continually. First operating from Riyadh AB, Saudi Arabia during Desert Storm and then Prince Sultan AB, Saudi Arabia until May 2003 when operations moved to Al Udeid AB, Qatar. L-3 Communications in Greenville, Texas handles all RC-135 current upgrades.

Reflections on the Recon Platform

The RC-135 family has seen both tragedy and close calls in nearly fifty years of flight. The RJ is currently spread in locations throughout the world including Kadena AB, Japan, RAF Mildenhall, United Kingdom, and the 55th Wing’s home, Offutt AFB, Nebraska. The Combat Sent and Cobra Ball maintain primary basing from Offutt AFB and forward deploy to multiple locations throughout the world to support their unique missions. In recent conflicts, all three variants saw sorties flown to support both the Global War on Terror as well as Operation Iraqi Freedom. This signified a milestone for Cobra Ball crews since all previous deployments supported the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty verification process and independent missile launches. The missions flown by these jets are not without risk. One notable event occurred on March 3, 2003 with the Cobra Ball receiving an unwelcome party on a mission over the Sea of Japan by two MiG-29s and two MiG-23s. One MiG-29, video-recorded by an aircrew member, came within fifty feet to the Cobra Ball. The video aired on March 4, 2009 on Comedy Central's “The Daily Show,” and was shown along with mocking of the North Koreans and “Top Gun” references.

The realization for intelligence aircraft in the late 1950s has influenced the entire Air Force’s modus operandi on reliance from satellite and aircraft rather than humans on the ground passing the information. The platform development since inception has become more sophisticated with analog recorders replaced by digital data collection methods and software packages that encompass the entire mission in a single case. The mission has stayed the same with changes to the target and improved methods rather than reinventing intelligence. The RC-135 platform has an intriguing past that helps shed light on this little known aircraft.

Sources

  • Aircraft backgrounds taken from: Boeing Company, “KC-135 Stratotanker Home,” (accessed November 1, 2009); Federation of American Scientists [known hereafter as FAS.org], “Big Safari,” fas.org (accessed October 15, 2009); USAF, “55th Wing History fact sheet,” (accessed December 5, 2009).
  • Nuclearweaponarchive.org, “Big Ivan, The Tsar Bomba (“King of Bombs”),” (last updated September 3, 2007; accessed November 2, 2009).
  • Footage Bakery, “Air Photographic and Charting Service,” (accessed November 16, 2009).
  • Aviation Safety Network, “ASN Aircraft accident Boeing KC-135A Stratotanker 59-1465 – Bellevue-Offutt AFB, NE (OFF),” (accessed November 5, 2009).
  • Kingdon R. Hawes, “A Tail of Two Airplanes,” rc135.com (accessed October 4, 2009).
  • FAS.org, “Rivet Brass,” (accessed November 3, 2009); Kingdon R. Hawes, “A Tail of Two Airplanes,” rc135.com (accessed October 4, 2009).
  • Check-Six.com, “Rivet Amber,” (accessed December 1, 2009); Hawes, (accessed October 4, 2009); George Smith, “The Story of Rivet Amber,” hlswilliwaw.com (accessed December 9, 2009); Joe Baugher, “Aircraft Serial Number Search,” cgibin.rcn.com (accessed December 9, 2009); Aviation Safety Network, “ASN Aircraft accident RC-135E 62-4137 – Shemya, AK,” (accessed December 9, 2009).
  • Global Security.org, “Cobra Ball,” (accessed December 9, 2009).
  • New York Times, “Around the nation: Air Force Team to Study Crash Fatal to 5 in Alaska,” nytimes.com (accessed December 9, 2009); Kingdon Hawes, “Cobra Ball II Memorial,” (accessed December 9, 2009); Kerry A. Cooks, “The Ides of March,” (accessed December 9, 2009).
  • Taxiway Alpha, “62-418/OF – Boeing 707-C-B-USAF,” (accessed December 9, 2009); Global Security, “Cobra Ball,” (accessed December 9, 2009).
  • Joe Baugher, “Aircraft Serial Number Search,” cgibin.rcn.com(accessed December 9, 2009); FAS.org, “Rivet Brass,” (accessed November 3, 2009); FAS.org, “Rivet Joint,” (accessed November 20, 2009).
  • Joe Baugher, “Aircraft Serial Number Search,” cgibin.rcn.com (accessed December 9, 2009); Aviation Safety Network, “ASN Aircraft accident Boeing RC-135T 55-3121 – Valdez, AK,” (accessed December 9, 2009).
  • Eric Schmitt, “North Korea MIG’s Intercept U.S. Jet On Spying Mission,” nytimes.com (accessed December 8, 2009).
  • Daily Show, “Korea in Krisis – Spy Plane,” (accessed December 10, 2009).

Comments 49 comments

Jeffrey Whalen 5 months ago

Brownie, thanks for the go to . . . will do


Linda Robinson60 profile image

Linda Robinson60 6 months ago from Cicero, New York

Hello AFTiggerintel So nice meeting you and happy to be following you. This is a truly fascinating hub, so much tremendous information on the past of these planes. Fantastic. I look forward to reading many more. Linda


JBrownie 6 months ago

CMsgt. Al Pope, Ph.D., please go to amtassociation.org or go to the AMT Facebook group. If you are a maintenance type you are welcome to join our group. We are maintainers that have flown from the days of USAFSS to present on the RC-135 and variants.


dennis barrett 6 months ago

I was an AMT feb81-apr83 on the 130 version out of Frankfurt. Heard about the crash shortly after getting to Germany. Alaska was my first choice for duty assignment .....


JBrownie 6 months ago

Jeffrey Whalen, go to amtassociation.org and check out that site. There are many AMTs that flew in those days. I don't know if you were a manitainer or an op but you will find names I am sure you will recognize. If you are an AMT you are welcome to join us.


Jeffrey Whalen 6 months ago

I flew numerous missions on the RC 135 Rivet Brass 60-0362 out of Eielson AFB, AK from October 1970 thru Jan 1972. Our Squadron Commander was Col Robert N. Anderson - a finer commanding officer there never was. These missions were long and grueling. I was a Russian linguist assigned to multi-channel communications - Soviet SAM tracking and missile sites. We flew missions along the Kamchatka Peninsula, East Siberian Sea, the Barrents Sea and the Baltic Sea. Most missions required 2 to 3 refuelings and most missions lasted from 12 to 14 hours.

The Soviets were rather predictable in their response to us . . . usually a Mig 23 or 25 would tail us for a while then break-off. In the Baltic we feared the response from the East German interceptors more that the Soviets. The East Germans came right up after us and would fly on top of us usually 50 to 100 feet . Also the Swedes were a real pain as they fiercely protected their "neutrality". One particular hellish mission was take-off from Eielson targeting Soviet submarine works in Murmansk bordering the Barrents Sea. We took on 3 refueling and 8 hours into the mission we reached our targeted area and flew an elliptical orbit for the next 4 hours.

The Murmansk military district (oblast) was the HQ for the Soviet Nuclear Submarine program. SAM sites were everywhere in that area and the activity on board was frenetic. This particular mission had us to TDY to RAF Mildenhall in East Angelia. We landed after 15 hours and had a one hour turn-around to fly into the Baltic on a 6 hour mission. Our Detachment had not enough personnel to replace us so I was tasked with suiting up again and flying out in to the Baltic Region / Leningrad Oblast.

Most of our missions were on the Rivet Brass 60-0362. Never a problem . . always reliable.


CMsgt. Al Pope, Ph.D. 14 months ago

Worked at LTV,ESystems,Greenville ,Tx. Air Force Liasion Office. Retired AF, and Gen.Dynamics. worked and flew on Athe design and development of Lisa Ann aircraft. Also on the Big Safari RC 130 aircraft. Retired to SD, and Fl. Taught at USF. Now 86 live in Mokomis,Fl.


Robert Sacchi profile image

Robert Sacchi 18 months ago

Thank you. It is an excellent reference article on the RC-135.


pita bread 20 months ago

Hellenikon. ...?


Goose 135 2 years ago

Over 5000 hours on the U,V, and W flying in the Nav position (Nav2 and Nav1). Had many a Mig come in "close" to liven up the mission. It was a great mission performed by a bunch of great Americans.


JTracy 2 years ago

I was stationed at The Rock from 85-86 as an AF Firefighter and still remember doing standby duty for "The Bitch" as she was affectionately known. Lots of time spent on the runway in a P-2 crash truck!!


JBrownie 2 years ago

Old 14 op, do you know of any AMTs from that era? The AMT Association is always on the look out for past AMTs, IMTs, or ASEs. We maintain a database of past personnel and encourage them to join our group. If so have them go to amtassociation.org or checkout the AMT Facebook group.

As for your memory of tail numbers, you memory is correct.


Old 14 op 2 years ago

Flew Combat Apple missions out of Kadena from '71 to '72 in the RC-135Ms. If I remember correctly the tail #s were 4131, 132, 134, 135, 138, and 139. Long flights, but interesting. We were chased off orbit by a Mig-21 on New Years day 1972. That was a ride to remember!


JohnLBisson 2 years ago

This is Amazing! I was home this evening, googled Cobra Ball, and came up with aircraft 12664. I then looked up at the wall in my office, viewing a painting I had painted by one of my electronic warfare officers at Shemya, of the RC-135 that I use to fly, aircraft 12664. I was a co-pilot at Eielson

AFB, Ak and use to go TDY to Shemya and fly this aircraft. I upgraded to Captain just prior to being re-assigned back in the States. I'm now an Airbus Captain for USAirways based in Charlotte, NC! Great memories!


JBrownie 2 years ago

Frank W, I didn't know Donald Wonders but did know another on that aircraft. Bobby Fox was on board it when it went down. He was my first supervisor in the 55 AEMS (as it was known then).

A side note to other AMTs on the RC-135 or earlier recon aircraft. If you were an AMT and flew on reccy mission on a recon bird, you are invited to join the AMT/IMT/ASE group site on Facebook. You will need to provide information to verify your qualification to join the group. Also if you qualify you are invited to join the AMTA. For more information on the AMTA go to amtassociation.org and check it out. We do good things for veteran groups and we have good reunions.


frank w 2 years ago

I am curious if anyone personally knew Tsgt Donald F Wonders radar tech on rc135e "rivet amber"?


Rhett Oppriecht profile image

Rhett Oppriecht 3 years ago

I had the honor of being the first RC-135U crew-chief. I took 792 to Edwards and LTV in Greenville for mods and then to Kadena in '72 for the Combat Sent II mission. The SR-71 "Rapid-Rabbit" (978) had just crashed, and was on a flat-bed in the revetment next to 792 while they cannibalized it. Ironically, we almost crashed too when we first landed; dragging #3&4 engines on the runway. I was promised a medal for helping save us from the crash, but by the time we came home they forgot about it. No biggie--I'm alive too! I had no idea at the time we were making history; just doing our job. The navigator, an artist, had me go into town and get paint, which he used to paint nose-art of a skunk smelling a daisy (two scents--get-it?); which we were ordered to remove as soon as we returned to the states. I have a picture.


JBrownie 3 years ago

You betcha. We plan to be there and enjoy the camaraderie. We hope to get to the FTVA picnic too.


Mouse 3 years ago

Hey JBrownie,

God knows that I have made MANY mistakes (and not only when I was an AMT, but he also knows how proud I am to be a member of that very special group of people)! Are you going to be at the AMTA reunion?

If not may God bless you and your family. If so I look forward to meeting you and the others.

Take care!


JBrownie 3 years ago

@Jeff/Mouse.... my mistake. You are correct. I made the entry incorrectly.


Jeff/Mouse 3 years ago

I would just like to add to JBrownie's entry concerning being an AMT and say that if you were an AMT feel free to visit the Airborne Maintenance Technician Association website at www.amtassociation.org/.


gil burke 3 years ago

I was a crew chief on rc135s stationed at Forbes AFB in Kansas then transferred to 56th weather recon out of Yokota from 1968 to 1773 loved that beautiful bire un till I got transferedto Beale with the 456th oms and working on B52Gs that was awesom especially when on the alert pad there and tdy to Hill AFB Utah!


Bill Boltinghouse profile image

Bill Boltinghouse 3 years ago from Hannibal, Missouri

I was Airborne Maintenance Technician aboard the EC-47 in Vietnam, RC-130BII (Bat Maintenance) out of Japan and the RC-135s out of Offutt AFB! Flew missions in some interesting locations! Loved the Flying!


Bob Coyle 3 years ago

Offutt-68-72 55th ams Special projects. Very special time, very special people (Alexander, Cornman,Southworth,Hughs,M.J.F. Jackson, and Bob Fox(lost June 5-69)

Enjoyed the TDYs and the interesting trip to the bone yard(Davis monthom) to strip the raven pod on one of the ERB-47's.


"JJ" 3 years ago

Flew a few missions on the "Hogs" with the 90th out of Oki. One hell of an aircraft and some of the best crew members and friends of my 22 years in the AF.


JBrownie 3 years ago

Joined the AF in 1967. Went to Offutt out of tech school in 1968 and worked in and around the RC-135. I was assigned to the 55th AEMS. I launched and recovered many an operational mission. After a tour to Lakenheath I volunteered for flying status. I spent the next 17 years flying around the world on that great airframe. Met a lot of great people, saw a lot of great places, and basically had a great time. Unfortunately I also lost some friends that flew on those aircraft. If you were an AMT go to AMTA.org and see more of your friends.


Harold W. Deaton 3 years ago

I spent about 5 yrs on at Kadena with over 100 "Candies" to my credit.No one on the "outside" can ever understand just how it feels to be able to say , "I was a crew member on a RC-135"...they just don't know.


Larry Dailey(Bonus Baby) 4 years ago

What a great set of aircraft. Notice in the history that little was mentioned about the original start up for the RC-135 and how that all came to be. I was part of those few that were involved in the test beds for jet acft and later help design and fly the first RC-135 which started the original "BURNING" series. Great days flying with the old 55th wing and getting this program underway.

To the men and women flying these aircraft and mission, you are not forgotten. I write this on Memorial Day week-end and thank you all for what you do and continue to do. THANK YOU


AFTiggerIntel profile image

AFTiggerIntel 4 years ago from Nebraska Author

The program, along with the struggles from the early days, has fascinated me since I arrived at the 55th Wing in 2001. I remember watching the video they show to aircrew and intel and thinking to myself that with today's technology we might be able to find Rivet Amber. If someone dedicated the time to her rather than to say going as deep as possible in one of the trenches or looking at the Titanic yet again.


Kingdon R. "King" Hawes 4 years ago

I was the acting squadron commander of the 24th SRS on 5 June 1969 when "Rivet Amber" and her crew vanished over the Bering Sea while enroute from Shemya to Eielson AFB in Alaska. I also crewed on "Rivet Ball" (1966-69) until she hydroplaned off the end of the runway while attempting to land on Shemya in 1969. You can read my story ("A Tale of Two Airplanes") at http://www.rc135.com

It was the best of times and the worst of times.


AFTiggerIntel profile image

AFTiggerIntel 4 years ago from Nebraska Author

Despite leaving the Recce field over five years ago, the RCs still hold a special place in my heart because they truly are the best kept secret in terms of versatility for intelligence and greatly overlooked in both past and present phase capabilities.


Don Chia 4 years ago

Recce Maintainers past and present; contact me on facebook to join our discussions of the maintainers' experience (on and off duty) and keeping the RC-135 flying through its many years of service to our country.


Bob E 4 years ago

My first missions in 1972 were on acft 126 and then on 121 with the fold-down chair on position 5... mostly flew on position 10.


Richard Chamberlain 4 years ago

flew on many of them... :-)


Bacon Jam & Tomatoe 4 years ago

How about those Combat Apple boys outta Kadena and Cam Ranh that played a part in the Vietnam Conflict, yeah right, War.


Bob Barker 4 years ago

Wow we did good huh?


USA522 4 years ago

USA522 was my callsign on RC 135M out of Kadena. I am a 203MD. North Viet Linguist. 1969 thru 1970. Dont forget the RC130BII out of our TDY base at Cam Ranh Bay, Viet Nam.

Still have pictures of the Ho Chi Minh trail.


Bob McCullough 4 years ago

I joined Ali Baba and the forty thieves at Aeronautical Systems Division at Wright Pat, and subsequently transferred to the 1st SAC crew for a years remote tour at Shemya (63-64). A fantastic tour, my wife did not think so, but none the less it was great.


Sheldon Topham 4 years ago

I was a Vietnamese linguist flying out of Kadena AB, Okinawa 1969 - 1972 on the Combat Apple missions in the Gulf of Tonkin and over Laos. The six RC135M's we had flew 24/7 mission after mission thanks to some terrific ground crews. Our lives were in the hands of some great cockpit crews and the people on the ground. We had some interesting if not scary missions. I wouldn't have missed it for the world.


Steve Hiott 5 years ago

It's almost impossible to describe weather at Shemya. The night that 664 crashed wasn't unusual. the weather could change in a moment. Winds ...... the island had no trees or bushes for a reason.


Terry Nies 5 years ago

I also supported 847 on its test flights and the first depolyment to Mildenhall and flew with the mission bird to Kadena in 72. I was a contractor working for SRL with the 55th SRW at that time supproting the R3 position.


jim naset 5 years ago

spent three tours as a life support specialist at eielson in the 60s and early 70s and remember inspecting the survival gear on 356,357,and 062. also flew on several of the search missions as an observer after the aircraft disapeared from shemya.


Rich Power 5 years ago

I had the honor to be a NAV-1 on COBRA BALL from 1979 through 1981. Many a tour at 'The Rock' and fond memories of my squadron members who perished on a/c 664. I followed that tour with the 55th and flew both RIVET JOINT and COMBAT SENT tours from 1982 to 1985. God Speed to all who have and are flying recce today.


Tom Heath 5 years ago

I was stationed at Offutt AFB from Aug 1971 until my discharge in Dec 1972. I was a Radar/navagation tech with the 55 AMS. I was with the first deployment of the Combat Sent 847 to Mildenhall in Jan 1972. I completed three tours to Mildenhall in 1972. In July or August 1972 we deployed to Kadena AFB, with the original crews, to gather data on new soviet weapon systems being utlized in Viet Nam. It was an exicting time, long hours, little sleep. I'm surprised that the aircraft is still in service. Great article.


LCTCRC 6 years ago

Lisa Ann/Rivet Amber's first ops sortie was in 1966.

I was there as part of the original test/acceptance EWO crew. We arrived mid-Sept 66 and finally left the extended, continuous TDY in mid-April 67.


Tim Domsic 6 years ago

Was at Eielson '84-'88 and spent many two-week tours at Shemya; flew on both 662 and 663 (if I remember correctly). Still see the island vividly in my mind and will never forget the (good) time spent there; a very satisfying memory of a very satisfying mission.


Jack Ward 6 years ago

Great article. I was at SAC HQ when we lost 664. Later, 85-86, I was honored to be the Chief of Maintenance at Det 1, Shemya. We only had the one airplane, 662 for the entire year. Great memories, long hours, and a tour I will never forget. I wish you had mentioned 662 in your report since it was rushed into service to replace 664 while 663 was in depot at Greenville.


ronald davis 6 years ago

had the pleasure of being apart of something that was not understood by many but those many owe their very freedom to something that made a big difference on a daily basis. the lives it saved were worth the lives that were given. we all knew the cost and accepted the challenges. be very very quite


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Silver Poet 6 years ago from the computer of a midwestern American writer

A definite thumbs up!

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