Shemya crews operated two airframes: the RC-135E “Lisa Ann/Rivet Amber” and the RC-135S “Rivet Ball.” Rivet Amber was fitted with a huge side-looking radar in the forward fuselage, behind a fiberglass radome that ran from the cockpit to the wing root. It was also unique in having a “fifth” engine—a Lycoming T-55-L5 turbine hanging under the left wing solely to furnish power for the radar, which emitted a beam that could detect incoming intercontinental missiles above the atmosphere and hundreds of miles away. The radar was so powerful it endangered anything in its path.
Our crew flew the Rivet Ball—tail number 1491—which had the hog nose and antenna stubs. Most of our sensing equipment was installed on the right side of the aircraft, which featured three distinctive di-pole “spear” antennas on pylons, as well as a row of 10 large round windows. The first five were quartz, and the rest optical glass, for the various cameras we carried. Also on the right side, located between the words “Air” and “Force,” was a black square—a special window for a gyro-stabilized camera with a plate glass negative that shot the stars during target tracking. On the top and center of the fuselage, a recycled B-29 gunner’s plexiglass dome served as the manual tracker’s position. The fuselage around the base of the dome was painted black to cut glare, and the top of the right wing was also painted black, along with the inboard sides of the engine 3 and 4 nacelles. Even with the anti-glare paint, the dome was hot and cramped. Still, with its panoramic view, it was the best seat in the house, and this became my position.
The Rivet Ball had two Raven teams, each consisting of seven or eight officers who collected electronic and telemetry data and two noncommissioned photo technicians, who loaded and downloaded the cameras and packaged the collected data, which was shipped to Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio for analysis. An enlisted electronic warfare technician also helped the team, taking care of the signal and telemetry collection equipment, downloading the recorders, and helping prepare the data. There were also Air Force Security Service personnel—Russian linguists—who flew with the team to collect voice communications and listen to Soviet radio chatter. Because we relied on each other so heavily, the members of each team were fiercely loyal to one another. The two teams were friendly but highly competitive.
The Ravens on my team—Team 2—also had personal call signs, bestowed by team members based on personalities and appearances. Our tactical coordinator (TC) was Captain Robert “Granny” Armentrout, a careful and deliberate professional who coordinated the mission in the air and was the team’s link with the pilots and navigators. Working closely with the TC was the signal monitor, Captain “King” Hawes, who had the best technical mind on the team and was also sometimes called “Tinker,” because he was constantly taking things apart or thinking up ways to modify the equipment. Raven 1 was Captain Al “Lurch” Hansen, a guy over six feet tall who looked even bigger in his oversized parka, military mukluk boots, and fur cap. Raven 2 was Captain Joe “Preacher” Hall, a gentle good ol’ boy from Louisiana who took his job and his religion seriously. Captain Ed “Mother” Wakeman was Raven 3, a former non-commissioned officer who had come up through the ranks and had been in RB-47Hs since God was a copilot. Mother was a Connecticut Yankee to the bone and took care of most of the housekeeping chores, from paperwork to refueling the crew truck to making the coffee every morning in the crew lounge. Raven 4 was Captain Russell “Gort” Howard, a former B-52 EWO who had been in my squadron in Georgia. Gort was a happy-go-lucky type with a good sense of humor. Captain Brad “Troll” Perry initially served as one of the team’s manual trackers (MT), then switched to backup signal monitor after the solar radiation began to affect his eyes. The Troll got his name from his habit of holing up in his room between missions to work on his graduate degree. I was the primary manual tracker, and despite my genteel southern roots, I ended up with the handle “Viper,” a title bestowed by Mother, who claimed that I tended to be a bit of a wiseguy—which of course was the sort of total exaggeration you would expect from a damn Yankee.
Shemya was not as cold as Eielson, but the weather was consistently bad, and we routinely took off and landed in minimum safe conditions with crosswinds, blowing snow, and limited visibility. The hangar door had a sign saying “Do Not Open When Winds Are Above 50 mph.” Takeoffs were often made between wind gusts that exceeded the maximum allowed by the book; pilots who flew in and out of here were rated “Shemya-qualified,” almost like carrier pilots.
There was only one operational runway at Shemya, which was around 10,000 feet long, but there were no overruns. At one end was a dropoff of about 40 feet into the tundra. This was the good end. At the other, a steep cliff plunged 50 to 60 feet into the rocks and surf. (I would come to a unique understanding of the hazards of this treacherous and icy concrete strip when Rivet Ball was eventually destroyed in a landing accident. Luckily, all of us walked away.)
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.