Ron Strong

When the incoming shot was first visible to the front-end crew they would yell "GASLIGHT" on the interphone system to announce the sighting. Gaslight was when the missile bits started to glow from atmospheric friction. The back-end crew could not see it because they had no easily accessible windows; besides, they were too busy operating the equipment. Of all the sorties I flew, the only time I saw a gaslight was when I flew as an extra and had no equipment operating responsibilities. It was a sight to behold and was visible for several hundred miles. But, compared to most of the modern-day fireworks, it was nothing special. As the reentry path progressed, the tankage and individual reentry vehicles (RVs) separated and began to glow or burn, also. Lastly, as the packages, such as tankage and other debris, neared the ground they burned out, and nothing more could be seen. The entire happening lasted only a few seconds. Now and then there would be a lower cloud layer and the RVs would disappear into it. During those few seconds the ballistic streak camera was run to capture, on a thick glass photographic plate about eight by ten inches in size, a visual record of just how many bits and pieces there were and what the trajectories looked like. The shutter was kept open for the entire event. Because the shutter was open and all the reentering bits followed ballistic paths and made streaks of light on the plate the unit was called a Ballistic Streak Camera. The camera was locked in position prior to the data run. During the run it was unlocked and the gyros took over the job of stabilization. The streaks looked a lot like a meteor shower but were brighter and lasted several seconds longer than the very brief streak of a meteor as it falls earthward. I'm not sure why a glass plate was used except possibly to have an absolutely rigid medium. Numerous other aerial platforms used cameras with regular film. After the BSC was run, the fiducials were "flashed" to imprint the date, time, and possibly the location of the plane during the event. The pilots also had hand-held cameras with telephoto lenses to take pictures of anything they saw that was associated with the reentry event.

Dunc remembers one of the idiosyncracies of the BSC was that it had to be manually recaged before going into turns at the end of the racetrack flight path. If this were not done the camera would not be stabilized and would be pointing in the wrong direction. This meant running back and forth to the radar compartment twice during each loop. To get to the camera you had to crawl behind the final output amplitrons. While it was accessible, getting to it was not something done quickly.

Well before the gaslight call the plane's powerful radar picked up the incoming ICBM far above the atmosphere and tracked it for many hundreds of miles. Initially the beam was manually steered to the most probable area to intercept the incoming missile which was dependent on the launch site. It was capable of simultaneously tracking incoming warheads and any anti-ballistic missiles (ABMs) that might be launched. While we were there we did not see any ABMs. In some cases the initial intercept range exceeded 1000 nautical miles. According to a 2002 Raytheon web site report the design criteria included intercept of an object the size of a soccer ball, 0.1-square meter, at range of 300 nautical miles and a one-meter-square target at 1000 nautical miles. Receiver sensitivity had to be nothing short of phenomenal because the power reflected back from a target decreases with the fourth power of distance. While receiver sensitivity was good the real strength of the system was transmitted power, just brute force. Now, with the tremendous advances in technology, receiver capabilities probably overshadow brute force.

Data obtained determined the sizes, numbers, trajectory, warhead impact locations, and targeting accuracy of the warheads. Trajectory information was obtained prior to and during reentry and included radar cross-section. Some missions yielded as many as three missiles. Most had only one. A few had none. Years later several more than three would be detected. Data recorded also had the exact spatial orientation of the aircraft: time, latitude, longitude, altitude, heading, ground speed, air speed, roll, pitch, yaw; everything needed to reconstruct the event. All of these were needed to determine the precise location of the target relative to the aircraft and the location of the airplane relative to the surface of the earth. The LN-12 analog navigation system provided this absolutely essential information. For some reason missions with no missile intercepts were called "tunas," possibly because we were just out fishing. Just prior to and during a data run it was not uncommon to see Charlie, Dick, and George frantically struggling to reload the computer program from the tapes or incorporate an instruction change. Only a few minutes, maybe six or eight, elapsed from first intercept by radar until the ground impact of the warhead. All the while during the data collection run a running narrative is made by the Raven doing the collection so that the technicians ultimately processing the data will have a better idea of the scenario. A written log was also included.

After the data run and while enroute back to Shemya the Ravens shut the equipment down, and took the tapes off of the recording decks and the BSC plate out of the camera. They then labeled them with mission number, date, and classification. All mission materials had the same sort of labeling. Interior lights were brought up to aid moving around and collecting the tapes and other paraphernalia. Circuit breakers were pulled out to ensure that all equipment was powered down. Also, descriptions of all malfunctions were entered into the Form 781, which is the record of all inflight problems.

To ensure the accuracy of the absolutely essential navigation data the LN-12 had to be started and initialized at a precisely know and precisely positioned location. When the plane was parked in the hangar it had to be maneuvered into the same spot every time. The tug operator soon became quite adept at the positioning required.

The average flight duration was about four hours or a little less. The shortest that we had was only 2+30 when the SEPP shelled itself out, leaving not much more than the nacelle's outer casing. Fortunately, we did have a spare on hand. Sometimes, very rarely, on the return back to Shemya or Eielson the aurora borealis could be seen as a shimmering, waxing and waning, filmy curtain of varying shades of reds, yellows, greens, and blues. Indeed, this was an exceptionally unique and highly satisfying mission. As we descended for landing, usually through clouds, we always wondered if the weather would permit it. Was the ceiling high enough? Was the wind velocity, or the crosswind component, low enough? Was the runway dry enough? What was the visibility? Was the fog too thick? Would we have to divert to Eielson, again?

Most approaches to landing were made using a ground radar controller's precision approach-radar (PAR). The controller directs the airspeed, rate of descent, direction, and altitudes enroute. Directions were continued until just before landing when the pilot took over and landed visually. This method was much safer than trying to make a strictly visual approach, especially at night and when descending through a cloud cover, rain, or fog when the runway wasn't visible.

After landing the oxygen regulators were turned off, and the mission materials collected and delivered to the debriefing team. As last act before many of the crew were allowed to rest they all went to the maintenance debriefing. During the debriefing the crew retold all malfunctions and added any additional information that the maintenance folks might need to correct the problems. Sometimes this could last an hour, depending on the complexities involved.

Almost every pilot that flew out of Shemya was truly exceptional. They had to be. Each was given special training to be rated as "Shemya qualified." However, there was a short, red-headed captain that tried to force Lisa Ann down rather than land properly. He touched down nose gear first and porpoised down the runway. Everyone wondered if he could stop in time, and in one piece. The comment could probably have been made: "Did we land or were we shot down?"

Almost every sortie was a flying challenge. Frequently we faced strong crosswinds, driving rain, and fog. The runway was relatively short, and it had essentially no overruns at either end. There was also the bump near the west end of the runway that was the result of repairing a crack from a 1965 earthquake. Often the plane had to land as it had taken off . . . between strong gusts. The maximum crosswind component for landing and takeoff was 25 knots. While on the final approach to landing, the plane flew into the wind and at an angle to the runway and was turned to the runway heading the moment before touchdown. As a result, landings could occasionally be hard or bumpy or both. Maintaining control was a challenge, to say the least.

On a rare occasion an aerial refueling was necessary to recover at Eielson. These pilots could refuel at night and fly so smoothly that the back-end crew was hardly aware, yet the sole reason for the recon birds being on Shemya was so that the Ravens could do their jobs. The best pilot I ever flew with was Brig. General Regis Urschler, my first aircraft commander in recon once I had returned from the Shemya TDY. He had a wonderful, natural smoothness and skill that was absolutely unequaled by anyone in all my 8500 hours of flying time. It was as if he were one with the airplane, an integral part of it. When we first met he, too, was a captain, albeit a very senior one. A decade or more later he made a night refueling in an RC-135U, taking on 120,000 pounds of fuel so smoothly that the crew was all but unaware of anything. I had the honor, privilege, and pleasure to serve under Gen. Urschler again when he was the operations officer and then commander of the 82nd SRS at Kadena AB, Japan, and the commander of the 55th SRW. I was the officer-in-charge of his formal change-of-command ceremony when he took command of the 55th in May of 1978.

A tale perhaps worth retelling took place in the Gulf of Mexico several years after my Shemya TDY. It seems that sometime before Reg was the wing commander he was flying with the 55th chief of stan-eval and the chief pilot of CEG. Reg saw a shrimp or fishing boat out in the middle of nowhere. He descended and buzzed the boat for a bit of fun. The stan-eval chief and CEG chief, Martineau, looked at one another and asked "Do you want to flunk him, or shall I?" Martineau finally did it. Reg was grounded for a month with eight hours/day of required study of all the relevant SAC and Air Force manuals. This didn't seem to hurt Reg's career very much - he made general!

To communicate on the plane, headsets with a boom microphone and the interphone system was used, especially inflight when engine and equipment noises made hearing difficult. Military aircraft are considerably noisier than commercial airliners. Shouting would have been necessary without the interphone, and immediate communications with the front-end crew would be impossible. There were several independent channels that could be monitored, used for communication with other crew members, or allowed radio transceiver usage. All interphone control panels have a CALL button that could be used to alert the entire crew when necessary. This button allowed the calling person's comments to be heard by everyone, at increased volume, over any other channel being monitored.

Instead of calling a person by name, the crew position nomenclature was used. This eliminated confusion and directed the call precisely, especially when crewmember names were not familiar. The standards were AC (aircraft commander), copilot, Nav (navigator), Engineer, Raven 1, Raven 2, etc, IMT (inflight maintenance technician), and Position (whatever number) for the signals intelligence operator (SIGINT) positions. Normally, calls were made to the front-end crew when preflight was completed, when ready to taxi, and when ready for takeoff. On the return leg the procedure was reversed with calls for ready for descent and ready for landing, etc. Numerous other calls were necessary for crew coordination, such as during aerial refueling, during equipment operation during a data run when a missile was being intercepted, and passing updated missile launch information, or even to comment about a beautiful aurora.

Eight times during the 27 sorties that I flew in seven months, we diverted to Eielson when the winds at Shemya were too strong or from the wrong direction, or other unfavorable weather conditions existed. Then the missions lasted about seven hours. That was about the longest possible without aerial refueling. Enough fuel had to remain in the tanks to allow diverting to a suitable alternate airfield other than Eielson should circumstances such as weather dictate. That was usually about 15 to 20,000 pounds and was dependent on the distance to the alternate landing base. A tanker from Eielson was always on alert to refuel us while we were in the data collection area if the situation warranted, even though it would take about three hours to reach us even if we met it part way. I don't remember that any of our more than 40 sorties needed to be refueled, however. At night, as we crossed the coast heading easterly toward Eielson, the Alaskan terrain was almost totally dark. When flying over the South 48 at night there are always lights on the ground from towns or farms or even vehicles traveling highways and back roads. Alaska had only a very, very few lights except at the cities. Only a rare spot of light could be seen, perhaps that of an intrepid pioneer, or a hunter or trapper, out there in the vast, snow-covered expanse of the Alaskan wilderness.

Over the years the other Shemya recon bird, the RC-135S, had to be refueled many times, sometimes more than once per sortie when there were ICBM launch delays or more than one missile was fired. Other recon aircraft, such as the RC-135C, -D, -M, -R, -T, -U, -V, and -W models routinely onloaded 100 or 120 thousand pounds of fuel from a KC-135A tanker on every sortie. Most routine sorties in these planes lasted about 12 to 14 hours. Longer duration sorties, some of which had lasted up to 30 hours, were refueled two, three, or four times. Fuel was passed from tanker to receiver through a telescoping boom that was about six or eight inches in diameter at a maximum rate of 4500 pounds/minute. One the end of the boom was a v-tail like the Beech Bonanza that could be "flown" into position by a Boom Operator in the tanker. Only a few yards separated the tail of the tanker from the nose of the receiver that were flying at 350 knots or so. Considerable skill was needed by the pilots to maintain the proper relative positions and take on the fuel without disconnecting or overrunning the tanker. Tankers usually flew with their autopilot engaged during refueling for smoothness, but the receiver always had to be flown manually.

Diversion to Eielson always involved an RON and was received with mixed emotions. At least, when we landed and took off at Eielson, crosswinds were not a consideration. Almost calm winds were the norm, especially in the winter. One RON had us launching right back the next day without any sleep but with a fresh front-end crew. It was time for the new crew anyway and saved having the turn tanker make the trip. Usually RONs lasted two or three days and probably most would have been shorter if Shemya weather had permitted. We normally carried some toiletries and a change of clothes. Canned inflight rations were always on the plane, too, as part of the aircraft equipment but seldom eaten. We usually had an emergency nibble of some sort stashed away somewhere onboard. The good part was a chance for BX and commissary runs and a welcome change of scenery and people. The bad part was that we were not always prepared for an RON for whatever reason and sometimes didn't have even a change of underwear, much less clothes or toiletries. We all ended up with several extra sets of RON stuff. The BX and commissary were always welcome because we could stock up on some necessities and essentials that Shemya seldom had: PopTarts, soups, cheeses, bread, fresh milk, cereals, clothes, and any other goodies that struck our fancies or that the Shemya BX had run out of, again. A few times we were able to borrow a car and go to downtown Fairbanks to the stores. The business district was really quite small, only three or four blocks long and two or three blocks wide. Prices were much higher than stateside but the products were available. There was no need for change - prices were always in even dollars. The area was a little reminiscent of a South 48 small town from many years earlier. I don't remember buying anything in Fairbanks but it was fun to look anyway.

The Eielson Officers' Club was always an attraction, too, with its different and larger food selections, nice furnishings, and other attractions. The Club on Shemya was an old wooden building left over from WW II. It was very popular, only a short distance from the Comp Building, and open to everyone on the island. It was actually called the Shemya NCO Open Mess. I still have my old Club card. Food and spirits were plentiful and inexpensive. Prices compared with today's are amazing, e.g., a 14 oz. New York Steak for $3.15 and Lobster Tails for $4.00. However, when you consider that the per diem allowance was only $3.50, they were high!

Eielson was very cold almost every time we were there. During one RON at the end of November the day was less than 4 hours long. At 10 a.m. skies were dark and at 2 p.m. they were totally dark again. The "day" was really little more than bright twilight especially with the usual heavy winter overcast. Just as the winter days are very short, summer days never really ended. Shemya, on the other hand, as was mentioned, is at about the same latitude as Berlin, Amsterdam, Warsaw, and Cork, Ireland, and definitely had dark summer nights, albeit short ones. When we returned to Offutt in April 1967 there was enough light at Eielson to read by at 3 in the morning. Another RON found the temperature at -51o, and when we returned to Shemya the temperature was +40; quite a wide range and a bit of a shock to the body.

Shemya was usually much warmer than Eielson, except in the summer. Then, Eielson temperatures often reached the mid-90s. A very vivid memory is one of walking along the streets of Eielson in December in the extreme cold with snow piled three or four feet deep along the curbs, in total darkness in the middle of the afternoon, and hearing the distinctive high-pitched crunch of snow under heavy, insulated flight boots. The headquarters buildings and our temporary quarters were six or eight blocks apart, and the BX and commissary were a little closer. Walking wasn't really too bad because there was hardly any wind most of the time. Smoke and steam plums from the central steam and power plant went straight up. Taking a deep breath quickly really brought in a chill. You could feel the moisture in your nose freeze. You kept your parka hood pulled up and out to form a breathing tunnel. It's hard to see that way but at least your face didn't freeze.

Airplanes don't like the cold weather very much, either. Tires develop flat spots at the ground contact point that made the plane shake a lot during taxiing. It was almost like having square tires. Hydraulic and other seals tended to leak, too. Ground heaters were used to try to warm the interior for the crews but only took the chill off at best. Ground crews could work outside for only a few minutes before having to come inside to warm up even though they were dressed in the warmest of cold weather clothing. After takeoff, even with the aircraft heat on full, well over an hour was still necessary to make the interior close to comfortable.

For those flight crews who had never been to Eielson in the winter the very low temperatures and essentially calm winds held quite a surprise. While the visibility at takeoff may have been good, the condensed exhaust gases from jet engines, ice fog, often reduced visibility to below the minimums required for the next plane to launch. It was like having dense, high altitude contrails brought right down to ground level! Several minutes to an hour might be required for the air to clear sufficiently for another takeoff. Not a few methods were tried to speed the process, including great large fans.

The quarters available at Eielson were somewhat Spartan. They could be listed as bachelor officers' quarters (BOQ) or transient officers' quarters (TOQ) or temporary living quarters (TLQ), or something similar. They were almost always hot because the heat could never be adjusted quite right. Most of the time it was better to have them too hot rather than too cold. The rooms were just large enough for two beds, two nightstands, and two dressers. Although they did have a nice closet. Because of the very cold outside temperatures, humidity in the rooms was extremely low and caused some respiratory problems. I sometimes tried sleeping with my head partly under the covers to keep my nasal passages from drying out. This was quite unlike our rooms in the hangar on Shemya where the steam heat was relatively easy to adjust and where the humidity was much higher because of all the fog and precipitation, and the proximity to the ocean.

During the first RON the rest of the crew was processing the mission materials while I had been cleared to go on to bed. In the middle of the night came a call from Charlie wanting to know where the film plate for the BSC was. Not realizing the materials would be shipped directly from Eielson to the South 48, the plate was still on the airplane in the refrigerator. The refrigerator was the closest thing to a storage container on the plane, and it was almost always empty but was used to store other mission materials. It took a few minutes to wake up enough to reorient myself to give a proper answer because of being so exhausted. How Charlie, George, and Dick managed I'll never know. Anyway, the plate was found and shipped with the rest of the mission stuff, and everyone was more or less happy. That sortie garnered us a Distinguished Flying Cross (DFC) because of the first-time collection of exceptionally vital intelligence data: ". . . extraordinary achievement while participating in aerial flight." Subsequent sorties earned us two Air Medals for "meritorious achievement while participating in sustained aerial flight" during a cumulative total of 43 operational missions.

The DFC sortie also netted us Favorable Communications letters from the Secretary of the Air Force, the Air Force Chief of Staff, the Commander-in-Chief of SAC, the 15th Air Force Commander, the 4157th SW Commander, the commander of Det 1 at Shemya, and finally, the commander of the 343rd at Offutt. Because the original letter from the Secretary of the Air Force did not mention us by name, only the events, these plaudits were given only a "Class C" status that meant they were sent only to the 55th and not to our records at Air Force level. The missile was the first of its type to be fired, and I was able to intercept its telemetry. This was the only missile telemetry I intercepted. If I were to have intercepted any, this was the one. On two sorties I did pick up Soviet earth satellite vehicle (ESV) telemetry, one of which was from a first orbit. First-orbit telemetry was more prized than subsequent orbits for some reason, possibly because it could identify the satellite's functions. Part of the information carried on each of our sorties was a listing of Soviet satellites, and when and where they would make their orbits. The info was called SPADATs, I think, for SPAce DATa.

Most of the sorties had little to distinguish one from another except for the number of missiles launched by the Soviets or where we would land. Also, some of the ICBMs had multiple, independently-targeted, reentry vehicles (MIRVs). After each successful mission the black silhouette of a little three-inch-high witch facing the nose of the plane with a pointy hat and riding a broom was painted over the crew entry hatch on the left side of the nose. A tiny little first-quarter crescent moon was painted over the witch's hat for each ICBM event recorded on the sortie. When we finally left Shemya there were at least eight witches and 10 moons. From the 43+ sorties flown there should have been more witches. The last known picture of Lisa Ann shows 17. Obviously, a lot of missions were flown with nothing happening, just a tuna. Pete confirmed that only sorties with collection had the witch: no take, no witch. The moon was an integral part of the symbol.

Kingdon R. Hawes (Webmaster)
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