The EWO and the MIRV: Cold war talk for an RC-135 crew's lucky day.
- By Robert L. Brown
- Air & Space magazine, November 2003
(Page 3 of 5)
The area we orbited was near the Kamchatka test range, where the Soviets fired their test missiles, and about 280 miles from Shemya. Since the Soviets weren’t in the habit of coordinating their tests with us, we learned of the possibility of a launch only hours before it was to take place, from an alert system so classified that the details were above even our security clearances.
When we got the word that a shoot was developing, the klaxons would blow, and we scrambled to get the airplane out of the hangar and in the air as fast as possible. Engine runups and equipment checkouts were quick and dirty. There was a narrow window of opportunity to get in position near Kamchatka to intercept the reentry vehicle, called the RV, as it plunged through the atmosphere into the range. Thanks to the air and ground teams, we rarely missed a shot. We did, however, tend to be a somewhat motley-looking bunch at times. While we normally wore regular-issue flightsuits, because of the secret nature of our work, these were stripped of any rank or unit patches, and with a scramble coming at any time, at least a few guys usually ended up flying in whatever they happened to be wearing. Jeans and sweat shirts were common, with headgear ranging from regulation caps to knit watchcaps and Russian-style fur-lined affairs with ear flaps.
It took a little over an hour to get from Shemya to the waters off Kamchatka, where, depending on how good our alert warning had been or how bad the weather was, we would usually spend anywhere from a few minutes to an hour maneuvering to be lined up properly at the north end of the area just before the RV appeared. As the RV entered the range, we’d turn south and run parallel to the coastline. If we were late, we missed part or all of the event. If we were early, we ran out of tracking space and lost the target behind us.
Each Raven monitored and recorded missile telemetry, the data link channels of the incoming RV, or the signals from the ground-tracking radars used by the Soviets to monitor the test firing. But ultimately, all the electronics and calculations boiled down to the eyeballs of the manual tracker, who was akin to the lookout in an old whaling ship’s crow’s nest. He aimed the row of specialized cameras mounted on the floor and pointing out the windows, but before anything got photographed or recorded, he had to spot the RV as it hit the atmosphere and began to heat up. When he did, he called “Gaslight!” — alerting the team that we had a target and to start data collection. At this point, things got very busy. The Ravens were recording everything that was going on, the pilots were trying to keep the aircraft as steady as possible, the navigators were keeping the aircraft on track, and the tactical coordinator was sweating out the time left before we ran out of track. The manual tracker was trying to keep the RV centered in his crosshairs.
Detecting the RV in time to alert everyone was critical, but the real trick was to track the actual warhead and not be fooled by all the burning fuel tanks and shields that the missile shed as it started to burn its way into the atmosphere. The MT had only a few seconds to locate, lock onto, and track the warhead, which was smaller, faster, and dimmer than the debris. It was easy to get behind the warhead and end up with a lot of useless film and data. I got bit at least once, but you learn fast on the job, and I usually got enough data to keep the intel and technical people happy. Being a southern boy who had grown up hunting fast flying dove and quail also helped, but I was never completely happy with the Rivet Ball’s aiming and tracking system, which was basically a modified B-29 machine gunner’s position with a simple optical sight and set of tracking handles. This setup was fine for firing .50-caliber bullets at a fighter half a mile away, but left something to be desired when it came to trying to precisely track a missile nose cone that was only a pinpoint of light. King (Tinker) Hawes experimented with a rifle scope he had bought himself and mounted on one of the window cameras, and the Troll actually used this setup on one mission with good results. But when I took over the MT position we still had the old system, and this is what I used during my time on Rivet Ball.
I discovered that the manual tracker’s biggest problem was the sun, which heated up the plexiglass-domed cockpit like a rotisserie oven. The sun was usually shining almost directly into one or both eyes. Sunglasses didn’t help; they made it harder to spot the RV warheads, so I resorted to sticking a square of paper about the size of a playing card behind the left lens of my glasses to block out some of the sun’s glare. It was a half-assed solution.
By the end of a typical mission, a manual tracker would be seeing spots; by the end of a tour of duty he could have permanent retina damage. We complained to the Air Force, but ultimately—as we often did at Shemya—we improvised a solution.
Not surprisingly, it was King Hawes who figured one out. He found a spare plexiglass dome somewhere in the hangar and dragged it into my room, along with several rolls of heavy-grade aluminum foil liberated from the mess hall kitchen. We put the dome—which was about three feet in diameter—upside down on my bed and laid strips of foil inside until we had built up a metal shell. We then carefully removed the shell from the plexiglass and carried it to the aircraft, which was parked in the hangar just outside our rooms. After careful folding, maneuvering, and some verbal assistance, we finally got the shell in. It fit pretty well, except of course that I couldn’t see out. King then cut out a section overlooking the right wing, and I had my sighting window. The result was crude and would have given the real engineers fits, but the shell worked, reflecting the solar rays and blocking the glare. The only drawback was that it also blocked the nice all-around view I normally enjoyed on takeoff and landing. I wasn’t supposed to be in the dome during takeoffs or landings because the position wasn’t reinforced to withstand an accident, but when you’re young you think you’re bulletproof. In any case, I had to give up the fun of watching everything from on top of the airplane and take my seat below for takeoffs and landings, as I should have been doing all along. This probably saved my life.