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.
On January 13, 1969, we slid off Shemya’s icy runway, sailed over the 40-foot drop, and slammed into the downslope. Equipment racks tore loose from the walls, black boxes were ripped out of the consoles; the noise was deafening. The impact broke the airplane’s back, tearing open the fuselage aft of the wing. I’m glad I wasn’t in the dome.
A more persistent danger than that of icy runways came from our target. The Soviets knew we were spying on their tests, of course, and monitored our flights closely. They would often have fighters in the area, and we knew that they would have loved an excuse to nail an RC-135. An RC is no match for a MiG, and since they had downed an RB-47H in 1960, we weren’t about to give the Soviets the opportunity to set up an intercept and shoot us down. Between 1946 and 1991, the Soviets destroyed 18 types of U.S. reconnaissance aircraft; about 250 airmen were killed in shootdowns, lost their lives in accidents, or were captured (see “Beyond the Iron Curtain,” Aug./Sep. 1994). The perils for reconnaissance crews didn’t stop after the cold war: Earlier this year, four North Korean fighters intercepted an RC-135S over the Sea of Japan. Pentagon officials initially said that at least one of the jets locked its missile radar on the RC before the fighters dispersed, but that statement has since been retracted.
The risks aside, everyone knew the mission was important and worth whatever it took to collect the data. In October 1968, we hit the jackpot. We had taken up our position off Kamchatka, and all indications were that an event was developing. I spotted the incoming missile warhead, called the signal, and centered the crosshairs just ahead of the burning tankage. Suddenly I realized that there wasn’t one warhead but three—it was a multiple reentry vehicle, or MRV (pronounced “merv”). U.S. intelligence agencies, including the CIA, had suspected the Soviets were developing a multiple-warhead capability, but we had not been able to prove it, and of course they denied it. If the Soviets had developed MRV capability, that would be an ominous turn, one that would affect ongoing nuclear arms talks. We had found the holy grail of the RC-135S mission—but when it happened, I damn near blew it.
Nobody had explained what I was supposed to put the crosshairs on, and I wobbled them all over the place. Somehow I managed to get enough data to confirm that we had spotted a MRV. The other Raven team was now anxious to pick up the next MRV shot and share the glory. But as it turned out, Team 2 was in the air for the second MRV test, conducted on December 18.
We knew it was an important discovery, but from our chilly Alaskan outpost, we didn’t realize the magnitude. Sometime later, we were called into a classified briefing room and shown a film of the United States representative at the United Nations confronting the Soviet representative with proof that the U.S.S.R. had developed and tested multiple warheads for its missiles.
In his hand he had the photos and data from our missions. Team 2 had hit the mark.