Sometime in early January 1967 the E's name was officially changed from Lisa Ann to Rivet Amber. Rivet Amber was lost about 1900Z on June 5, 1969 somewhere over the Bering Sea while attempting to return to Eielson and the South 48 for periodic inspection and maintenance at Greenville. One NCO from our original crew, "Duke" Gregory, was returning to Offutt to retire. Dunc would have been on board but he unselfishly gave his seat to another who wanted to go to the South 48 on leave. There were 19 precious souls onboard. Exactly what went wrong has never been positively determined. There were reports of the reception of an emergency rescue radio signal similar to what was carried on the plane. Rescue vessels were unable to determine the source.
Every possible effort was expended by air and sea to find the plane and crew. It was, to that date, the longest and largest undertaking ever put forth. Many, many KC-135 search sorties were flown at only 300 feet above the sea trying to find even the smallest remnant of the plane or crew. Flying and visual sighting conditions were very difficult. The Coast Guard reported rough seas and 20-knot winds with ceilings as low as only 1000'. Three-hundred sorties flown during 11 days, 155 by the 6th SW at Eielson, totaling almost 2600 hours were flown by all aircraft types. Two Coast Guard cutters were involved as were several other ships that happened to be in the search area and volunteered to help. Japanese fishing trawlers were particularly helpful but Soviet ships tended to ignore requests for assistance. No trace of anything has ever been found, absolutely nothing, even after all these years. Some traces may have been seen during the search efforts but the very poor visibility, overcast sky, and falling rain made positive identification impossible. Also, that part of the Bering Sea has a lot of debris floating around most of the time. Some of the flotsam may have been from Lisa Ann but could not be identified as such.
Many theories and conjectures have been put forth about the cause of the loss. They range from the very possible to the highly improbable.
A virtual impossibility is that it was shot down by a missile from a Soviet aircraft or submarine.
The SEPP engine may have disintegrated and some of the turbine blades could have severed hydraulic and/or electrical lines that controlled fuel flow management, with the result that the aft body tank remained full and created a tail-heavy condition. This would have eventually caused the plane to stall out and literally fall out of the air because of the nose-high attitude. The flying blades could have possibly ruptured the oxygen lines from the converter thereby causing the aircraft oxygen system to fail. The SEPP engine had failed before.
Another possibility is that the vertical stabilizer came off because the PACER FIN factory tail strengthening modification may not have been done. The modification was to correct fatigue cracks in the vertical stabilizer attachment points. Reports reveal that 761 of the various C-135 models had the modification done at Tinker AFB in Oklahoma and Kadena AB, Okinawa, Japan in just 52 days starting on August 6, 1968. According to reports from the Air Force Historical Research Agency at Maxwell Air Force Base and the Oklahoma City Air Logistics Center, 62-4137, in their interpretation of available data, did not have the PACER FIN modification. It had been inspected at LTV on August 10, 1968 and, because of the accumulated flight time of only 2960 hours, was placed in Category II that cleared it for an additional 550-1200 hours of flying. At the time of the loss only 390 more hours had been flown. Total time on the airframe: only 3350 hours. It was almost new, especially when considering that the M model, before conversion to the W model, had well in excess of 30,000 flying hours. The PACER FIN modification was not done in a timely manner because the SAC did not want to pull Lisa Ann out of the operational flying schedule and risk losing valuable intelligence data.
If the vertical stabilizer came off the HF radio antenna on the top of the tail would be lost, and the long-wire HF antenna, that ran from mid-fuselage to about the mid-point of the vertical stabilizer, would have been broken off at the tail, or torn completely off at the fuselage, or only part of it may have been left attached. An incomplete antenna whipping around in the slipstream could be the reason for the increasingly broken transmissions that were received by Elmendorf Airways from Irene-92, its call sign, beginning at 1720Z on June 5, 1969. If the fin broke off it could have caused cabin pressurization failure, and accounted for the increasingly more broken transmissions. The fin attachment point is directly above the aft pressure bulkhead. The right hydraulic system would have been lost because it controls the rudder. If the tail had come off the center of gravity would have shifted dramatically forward. Ordinary -135s could have partially compensated for the shift by transferring fuel from the forward body tank to the aft body tank. Lisa Ann had no such forward body tank, only 20+ tons of radar equipment. Possibly fuel from the center wing tanks could have been transferred aft if the aft body tank had room to spare. Also, fuel from these tanks could have been jettisoned if the fuel-dump system were operative. The plane would have been decidedly nose heavy before the possible compensations. Lowering the landing gear would have provided some nose-up compensation but probably not enough if, indeed, that was the problem. This could be the correct solution and appears to be the most probable. At least one B-52 crashed when its tail came off while flying at low level. All B-52s subsequently went through a similar tail strengthening modification.
An additional factor to be considered is that, according to maintenance reports, the plane had sustained extensive skin damage to the tail and the areas close to the HF antenna tail mounts because of severe turbulence on an ops sortie the day before its last flight. However, there was no damage around the side radome. Also done the day prior was the changing of a part of the LN-16 on the top of the fuselage. The NCO that did the work did not notice anything amiss. These further contribute to the tail loss being the most probable cause.
The radome could have blown out. This does not seem probable because the airframe was very thoroughly checked at the factory some time after April of 1967 and found to be very structurally sound. If it had blown out there would have been a very rapid decompression, fuselage bending, and an immediate crash, not the extended period of HF radio transmissions. Also, there would have been much debris blown out and scattered over a large area, but none has ever been found.
The long-wire HF radio antenna could have come loose from the fuselage and embedded itself in the vertical stabilizer causing the rudder to become useless.
Another possibility: a mysterious, unexplained situation existed. At least one pilot reported an intermittent vibration that could not be isolated or limited to a given flight scenario, altitude, or airspeed. The vibration may or may not have been involved in the loss. A vibration was reported in the last communications received from the crew on that last, fateful day. It did present a perplexing situation. Bill Ernst reported that the PACER FIN modification corrected a problem with the holes that the vertical stabilizer fastening bolts went through. From wear the holes became elliptical rather than being round. The wear came from years of demonstration of roll due to yaw maneuvers. He believes that the worn bolts moved in such a way as to shift in the holes and set up a vibration in the fin that resonated throughout the aircraft. Eventually the bolts vibrated back into their proper places and the vibration stopped. On the fateful day the bolts could have failed and the vertical fin separated from the empennage. This would have left the pilots with marginal control with only the small nonmoveable vertical fin and differential throttles to maintain control. A commercial airliner, possibly a PanAm, lost its vertical stabilizer and the pilots were able to use differential throttles long enough to land the aircraft safely. If Lisa Ann would have had an aft escape chute maybe some could have escaped through it. One source reported that an aft escape chute was to have been added when the PACER FIN modification was done. The maintenance station would have had to be removed to make room for it, however. No definitive solution was ever found for the loss. No positive, final answer can be given, yet, failure of some part of the tail section seems to be the most probable.
In all the records of the last radio transmissions there are no reports of any UHF or VHF radio messages from Lisa Ann. This is most unusual because there were two ARC-34 UHF radios onboard and a goodly number of ships and aircraft were within reception range. The antennas were not located near the tail. Other RC-135s also had two VHF radios, as did the C-135B from which the E was modified, but the E model had none. Possibly the space for the radios had been relegated to equipment that was deemed more mission-essential.
A question has been raised about why the crew did not bail out. The answer may be that the crew thought the plane could be landed somewhere other than in the water and that the end came too quickly to take action. Also, there might not have been enough anti-exposure suits for everyone onboard. There were 15 nominal crew positions on Lisa Ann, but 19 people were onboard. The crew may have decided "all or none" for the suits, and that a water landing was preferable. If a successful ditching were made the 20-man life raft would have been launched from the left over-wing hatch. Also, each crew position had an individual life raft as part of the seat survival kit upon which each person sat.
There is even more speculation about where Lisa Ann may have crashed. Some think it may be on the Alaskan mainland, or on the Arctic icecap, or in the Bering Sea, or in what was the Soviet Union, or in Canada. One man, Bob Leavitt, a map dowser who was stationed on Shemya in 1946-7 in the 344th Fighter Squadron, thinks it is at approximately 173 degrees West and 55 degrees North resting on the bottom at 580 feet, 161.5 miles west of St. George Island. A map dowser uses the same technique as a water dowser except that he uses a map rather than open ground to do the searching. This estimate, however, can not be confirmed. In April of 2000 or 2001 a fishing vessel, the Arctic Rose, was located in more than 450 feet of water by use of a sonar device towed behind a fishing trawler. The Coast Guard found the Arctic Rose 200 miles NW of St. Paul Island in the Bering Sea. St. Paul and St. George are only 40 miles apart in the Pribilof Island group southwest of Alaska. Surely Lisa Ann could be found, too.
Another source says the plane is at about 172 degrees EAST and 58 degrees North and a depth of 3500 feet. This puts the final resting place west of Shemya, and not east, as is generally accepted. The line of thought for this location is that there was a fire in the cockpit in the area of the SEPP control panel, hence the call for oxygen for the crew. Going on oxygen is the second line in the fuselage fire checklist, with alerting the crew being first. This fire supposedly caused a loss of cockpit power to the interphone system which precluded voice transmissions on the HF radio. Without interphone voice input to the transmitter only the carrier wave could have been transmitted when using the cockpit radio controls. This theory does not seem to be credible because the Security Service troops also had access to the HF radio from their stations in about the middle of the fuselage. The theory continues that at some point the crew attempted to return to Shemya. Why the plane was west of Shemya and so far north, more than 350 nautical miles, is totally speculative. Perhaps it overshot. With the exceptionally well qualified pilots and navigators this seems highly unlikely.
As was mentioned, Soviet "trawlers" were always lurking in the vicinity of Shemya and paid very close attention to everything Lisa Ann and Wanda Belle did. On that last day it is absolutely certain they were in position to monitor the takeoff and flight direction. By using triangulation on the plane's HF transmissions they undoubtedly maintained constant tracking of the aircraft's location. Also, Soviet long range, passive HF detection stations may have some additional information. Somewhere in the current Russian archives there must be a very good approximation of where Lisa Ann finally came to rest. Maybe with the recent openness of information exchange some closure can be obtained.
As a memorial to the missing men and airplane, the name of the 6th Strategic Wing Headquarters building at Eielson AFB, Alaska was changed from Ptarmigan Hall to Amber Hall. Had I elected to continue with the program, I most likely would have been one of the 19 lost because Dunc and I may have been on the same crew. God in His infinite, loving mercy had spared me for something else. We are saved from something, or, for something.
Lisa Ann and the 19 aboard have been gone for more than a third of a century. Most, if not all, of those that flew in her are old enough to be totally retired and drawing Social Security benefits. All have long since retired from active military service. The Soviet Union, i.e., "Evil Empire," has fallen and Russia is now our friend on some issues. Shemya has been in caretaker status since 1995, and the memories of that lonely, remote, often dismal, island are fading, but what was accomplished by those valiant aircrews flying from there must never be forgotten. Some "survivors" of Shemya have forgotten all but the most major of events because Shemya was not a pleasant memory for them. Others found Shemya to be their best assignment. My PCS tour on Shemya in 1981 was the best of my 23 Air Force years. Most of those crewmembers are now old men, old warriors who have long since passed their gleaming torches of freedom to younger aircrews to light the way and carry our flag with renewed vigor for yet-to- be-born future generations.
Freedom is not free. It does not come without sacrifice - the sacrifice of loneliness, isolation, desperation, hardship, and, sometimes, the sacrifice of life when it must be. Nothing truly worthwhile and lasting can be had without some kind of sacrifice. Nineteen families shared the ultimate sacrifice: the loss of husbands, sons, brothers, friends, and comrades-in-arms. Nineteen men were sacrificed on the altar of intelligence collection. What these men accomplished should be recorded in the annals of history in large letters. The intelligence they collected on Soviet missilery probably prevented another world war. That data may have been the deciding factor that stopped a preemptive strike costing millions of lives on both sides. Exactly what was determined I don't know. It may have been that what the Soviets claimed for capabilities of their missiles was totally false, or the accuracy was poor, or something else.
Just why these 19 had to perish I will never know. Maj Rudy Meissner was a strong, dynamic Christian. He lived his faith. He tried to bring others to the faith of the saving grace of Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. I don't know how many he influenced in his lifetime or how many he might have led to salvation in the last few minutes of the life of Lisa Ann. I am sure, however, that he was trying, even to the very last moment. I know where Rudy is now and I hope that all of the other 18 are with him in Paradise.
The loss wasn't just that of the 19 families. It was a loss for all flyers, especially those in reconnaissance who share a very special comradery. "Those that care" will always remember. The loss was also to the nation and the Air Force. We haven't been together as a group for more than 36 years and are scattered all over these United States: Maine, Nebraska, Texas, California, and Washington. Two of us have passed on, and I am the youngest of those that remain. Even the youngest of our children are a few years older than we were 'way back then. Who will be next? The enlisted maintenance troops are dispersed over an even larger area. Distance continues to separate us, but memories will forever bind us together.
The cost of freedom is also vigilance. Vigilance in war. Vigilance in peace. Vigilance against those who would deny the contents of our Constitution in an effort to be "politically correct," to avoid "offending" someone. Let us forever continue to be "One nation under God."
While we were isolated and lonely on Shemya the situation was generally far less dangerous than that was a small country in Southeast Asia. That country was Vietnam where 58,000 US men and women were killed, where many were imprisoned and tortured, some for as long as nearly seven years. Those imprisoned men suffered in a war we tend to forget yet they must also be remembered: remembered for the courage and devotion to duty that resulted in countless hours of torture and beatings. These, too, were American fighting men who loved their country. Many of them did not make it back to families and friends either. We were safe and never had a shot fired at us.
My most sincere and heartfelt thanks goes to my wife, Molly, and the comrades, all long since retired from military service, that served on Lisa Ann with me, and former 55th SRW and 6th SW members, and the many others for their assistance in remembering and documenting: Brig. Gen. Regis Urschler, Colonels Bill Ernst and Roy Fair, Lt Colonels Pete Hurd, Dunc Wilmore, George Reagan, Dave Hubbard, King Hawes, Bob Brown, Barry Kibbe, Bruce Bailey, Gus Gutzat, and Bill Forbis who succeeded me as an Ops Officer at Shemya; Security Service Sgt George Smith; and Mr. Bob Leavitt, map dowser extraordinaire. Special thanks go to Major Ed Steffen, the project officer for Lisa Ann on the Air Staff; Mark Evans at the Naval Historical Center; Archie DiFante at the Air Force Historical Research Agency; Dr. James Crowder in the Oklahoma City Air Logistics Center history office; my very good neighbor, SMSgt Charlie Twitchell; MSgt Frank Campfield, a Security Service IMT from Eielson; Col. Tim Titus, the last CINCSAC's executive officer; LtCol Jerry Hanner, who flew EB-66Cs with Charlie in Southeast Asia; Major Jim Sky, an EW Ops Officer at Shemya in 1988; my dear friend, Col John Carey, a former Alaskan Air Command Director of Intelligence and also former 55th SRW member; Logan Delp and Mert Canady, Hughes field engineers on the 863 system; Tom Simundich, a Litton tech rep on the LN-16 navigation system that was later installed on Lisa Ann to replace the LN-12; and LtCol Joe Cleary, the SAC project officer for the Shemya aircraft who prevented the E model project from being canceled early-on by the Air Staff. In the few months before Joe's death, very early on Mother's Day 2003, he provided background material and insight that were absolutely unique and are, indeed, the most treasured. It was a rare privilege to have known him and shared his trust, even though it was for only a few short months. Pete Hurd was of particularly valuable assistance in collecting specialized information available from no other source. Dunc Wilmore magnificently helped fill in many gaps. His five notebooks of notes from the Greenville training are priceless. They may well be the only remaining written records of the original Lisa Ann academic instruction. What seemed to be so commonplace and of little note then is a highly valued relic now, just like most antiques.
I most certainly could not have completed this narrative without irreplaceable help and encouragement of everyone involved. Several contributions were completely unsolicited and are so very much appreciated. I thank you, from the bottom of my heart, in the name of the 19, and in the name of the future generations who must never forget Lisa Ann. May God richly bless you, one and all.
Ronald D. Strong
Lt. Col. USAF (Ret.)
This narrative was written for readers who are only partially familiar with the Air Force, and military terminology and nomenclature. As a result, it may seem over defined in many areas.