Adventure-7  



By
Ron Strong




The highest point on the island is only some 275 feet, according to the NOAA chart. One source said 240 and another chart showed 400. At any rate, the high point was not very high. Not far from the high point (nothing was really very far from anything else on such a small island) was the site of the Army-Air Force Joint Operations Group (AAFJOG), also known as DoD Anders, where mission-monitoring of operational sorties, among other things, was done. It was not uncommon to have visibility down to only a very few yards because of the thick fog up there; however, when going back down the hill to the hangars it could be like climbing down out of an attic. Visibility could be almost unlimited and the mountainous islands of Attu, 28 miles to the west, and Agattu, 19 miles southwest, could be clearly seen. The ceiling delineation was that sharp.

Ceilings and visibilities are less than 700 feet and 1 miles half of the time. On average, some sort of precipitation falls 334 days of the year. Rainfall averages only 31 inches/year, however. Snow averages 75 inches/year although not much accumulates because of the high winds. Snow and rain very frequently blow sideways. Sideways rain can really sting. Freezing rain or drizzle happens usually only once a year. During all months, winds can be greater than 60 knots (69 miles/hour), and 108 (124 miles/hour) was exceeded after the wind gauge broke in December of 1959. While we were there in January '67 the wind came from the south at 100 knots (115 mph). A radar specialist from the Cobra Dane radar site in the late '60s reported their anemometer had gone up to 150 mph and was pegged for half an hour. When the wind was that strong, the old hangars creaked, groaned, whistled, and shuddered under the strain, but they stood fast. July was the warmest month, and February was the coldest. Because of the wind, at least a jacket was always necessary when going outside. Our long parkas felt good most of the time, especially when outside for hours of beach combing or exploring the interior of the island.

When exploring the island a metal detector would be very handy, but, with so many metal bits scattered everywhere, a detector would probably be going off constantly. Some did dig for artifacts in and around where old buildings had been, and where some ancient dwellings might have been. There are reports of some antiquities being found but nothing of earth-shaking value.

Shemya was almost a paradox. The assignment was dreaded by most and not a few opted to retire or resign rather than go to Shemya. A few years before I went to Shemya as an Ops Officer there were six or eight majors and lt. colonels that resigned before someone was selected that could not resign. However, many military and civilians went there quite voluntarily. When I went back in 1981 as an Ops Officer with Det 1, the tour was the best I had in the Air Force because of the great job satisfaction and relative anonymity. Civilians were paid a premium wage amounting to at least twice, and more, regular pay. Some had been there for years. One civilian, a Black gentleman who worked at the power plant, was called the "Mayor of Shemya" because of his many-yeared tenure. Another civilian who worked at the AAFJOG stayed for a number years to get out of debt, put his children through college, and buy a house. Like the military, these civilians also received 30 days of paid leave every year. Some others stayed because they just couldn't seem to fit in the normal flow of life in the Lower 48.

Being an inveterate scrounger (dumpster-diver), the most fascinating area of Shemya for me was the Million Dollar Dump on the extreme southeastern tip of the island. I visited it many times. This was where all the trash and unwanted materiel from the island was deposited. There were great stacks of lots of things everywhere. Almost everything imaginable could be found from bits of WW II airplanes and vehicles to huge copper radiators from massive diesel engines to brand new excess parts in their original, sealed wrappers to junked vehicles of all sorts. It was cheaper to discard excess and damaged items than to ship them back for reuse or repair. I found a number of electronic parts, still in the original wrappers, that I used for various tinker projects. One such project was a small neon lamp that I mounted behind a small piece of blank fiberglass circuit board and set to flash once or twice a second. It was mounted in a small box atop a peanut can painted silver. The fiberglass was about the same color as the E model's radome and was meant to represent the radar. Inside the peanut can were the electronics bits from the dump and two batteries. Even the switch and flash rate control were from salvaged bits. It still works! Really top quality junk! I know I still have other bits, too.

All of the Lisa Ann personnel were in Hangar 3. Officers were second floor on the south (ocean) side, and the enlisted were on the opposite side, second floor. Contractors from LTV were on the south side of the second floor in Hangar 2. Their maintenance facilities were on the first floor in Hangars 2 and 3. Because the hangar was our home and had to be close to the plane, recreation areas were on the hangar floor in the corners opposite the large aircraft entrance door. We had a jogging track around the perimeter, and basketball and volleyball courts painted on the floor. There was even a weight-lifting room in Hangar 2. The first floor of Hangar 2 had maintenance offices, supply and storage space, and the ground data processing rooms. A set of computers and line printers in Hangar 3 were used to process the data collected on the missions. To achieve as much timing accuracy as possible we had a special time standard that plugged into the airplane for mission use. In the hangar processing room was a special WWV receiver that compensated for the transmission time delay from Colorado to set the clock as accurately as possible. The main occupant of Hangar 3, however, was Lisa Ann herself. She just fit in the hangar with only a few vertical yards to spare for the tip of the tail and a few yards on each wingtip. Once the full-width hangar doors were closed there was maybe 100 feet between the nose to the end of the hangar.

We almost always wore flights suits - sage green coveralls - because of having to be ready to fly at any time and often at only a moment's notice. Most of us wore regular shoes and kept our flight boots stowed on the plane. Sometimes when the plane was down for maintenance or the weather was too bad to fly, some would wear civilian clothes. Jeans were the clothes-of-the-day because dry cleaning was not available. I think I saw the base commander wear a regular blue uniform when official visitors were on the island. He probably had to send his uniform back to Eielson or Elmendorf AFB at Anchorage for cleaning. Other than that nothing fancier was ever worn anywhere, even to the chapel. I chose to wear a flight suit almost all the time just for convenience, even when we had to divert to Eielson because of bad weather at Shemya. I did have civilian clothes for RONs for the rare occasion of going into Fairbanks. Also, they were so much easier to wash than other clothes. Being ready to fly meant we had to have the right equipment on the airplane. Required clothes for the Arctic area included a long parka, heavy fur-covered mittens, heavy insulated boots, winter flight suit, thick insulated underwear, fur cap, a survival knife, and more. I also had a sleeping bag, blanket, and some personal survival gear. Everything was stuffed into a canvas bag, about 2 x 2 x 3 feet, that was called a B-4 bag. All this was in addition to the regular flight accouterments such as an oxygen mask and helmet, flashlight, brief case, aircraft manuals, checklists, and numerous other assorted items that were necessary and required, or just handy when flying.

Hangar 2 housed the Detachment administrative and maintenance offices along with living quarters for the Detachment officers and enlisted folks. At that time there were only two PCS Det 1 officers on Shemya, the commander and maintenance officer. The Det commander had a separate office within the operations and administrative area and the maintenance officer had his own office in the maintenance area on the other side of the hangar. Wanda Belle Raven crews were PCS to Shemya until some time in 1966. When I was there in 1981 the staff also included two pilots and two EWOs as Operations Officers for a total of six SAC officers. On the outside of the hangar doors at the east end was a large sign that said "Do Not Open When Winds Are Above 50 knots." This was for good reason because a segment of Hangar 4's roof was missing because of the high winds. There was also a briefing room where we had daily weather and intelligence briefings, and gave dog-and-pony shows for various visiting firemen. Every visiting dignitary, military (colonels, and 1-, 2-, 3-, and 4-star generals) or civilian (which were few) wanted to hear about Lisa Ann and all that she was doing. Frequently part of the 4157th staff at Eielson accompanied them. It seemed that there was some sort of "high poobah" visiting every couple of weeks. The weather was always good when visitors arrived, or they wouldn't have been able to get there. Consequently, the visitors never had the real flavor of the weather. They probably wondered what the fuss over the weather was all about. You had to be there a while to know.

Outside the briefing room were three lights about 5" in diameter in a horizontal row. They looked a little like a traffic light on its side. These were used to indicate our readiness status for a possible ops sortie launch. Green meant nothing was happening and that it was safe to do almost anything. Indicators were cold. Yellow meant indicators were starting to develop for a launch sometime fairly soon and we should get things in order. Things were warm. Red was hot. Go to the plane. The klaxon would be sounding very shortly, if it hadn't already. The lights were always the first we checked when entering the hangar for the daily weather briefing, or whenever for whatever.

Hangar 2 was the area where the mission materials were securely wrapped for shipping back to the South 48 and Wright-Patterson AFB, Ohio for final processing. Packaging classified material for shipping through the U.S. Postal system as registered mail was not a simple task. Everything had to be double wrapped to prevent tampering and surreptitious viewing. The inner container was wrapped with heavy butcher paper much like any package, but then had to be completely, overlappingly covered with a heavy, dry-glue, three-inch-wide tape that came from a water-wetting dispenser. Lastly, it had to be wrapped again in heavy butcher paper. This was a time consuming task. An average package was a two-foot cube and took about 20 or 30 minutes to complete. Sometimes three or four would go out in a shipment, depending on the amount of data collected.

Not much time passed before we were tasked for the eagerly anticipated first sortie. October 7 was the first of 27 missions that I flew. Dunc, being senior, had the first sortie a few days earlier. A total of about 43 sorties were flown in the seven months while we were on Shemya. Dunc and I alternated flying the Raven 3, telemetry station. On one sortie Dunc intercepted a 61 or 66 MHz signal that the Wanda Belle crew had missed, much to their consternation and total disbelief. He went to the telemetry readout lab with the tapes and proved it! Well done!

Most flights took off in the late afternoon or early evening. Only one was in the very late morning. I suppose the Soviet missiles were launched at a convenient time in the duty day of the launch sites which were Tyuratam in Kazakhstan, Plesetsk in NW Russia, and other places. Submarines also launched missiles from the White and Barents Seas. Launch frequency and the day of the week were variable, but there was hardly ever one on Sunday, or Saturday after about noon, or, if we were tasked, nothing happened. Mondays didn't seem to be too popular, either. Maybe the Soviets were hungover from the weekends? Fridays were the most popular. Maybe it took the scientists and engineers all week to get ready for a shot.

Somewhere, early on in the TDY, Dunc and I were tasked to be the ones to listen to an HF radio and receive messages in Morse Code. Fortunately, Dunc was able to squash the idea and had a Security Service guy sit on a stool and do it. The fellow was already proficient with the code. Once we were totally adept with the main effort the task could possibly have been handled but it would have been very difficult. As it was we were completely engrossed with the details of the job at hand. If we had do it Dunc felt that we would have been more "mission essential." As it was, the radar absolutely took first priority. Later, when PCS to Eielson, Dunc was Dick's Raven 2 on the radar and the stan-eval Raven 2.

The Air Force has aircraft qualification requirements that have to be met initially and every year by the initial qualification date. Since there was no other RC-135E but ours, and no other crew than us for ground and flight evaluation, we evaluated ourselves! We wrote the questions, developed the grading criteria, and administered and graded the exams. The exams were of two types: Proficiency and Emergency Procedures (EP). The EP exam covered three subject areas: Warnings, Cautions, and Notes. Warnings were procedures that if not followed would cause personal injury or death. Cautions were procedures that if not followed would cause equipment damage. Notes were procedures that were considered essential to emphasize. The Proficiency exam covered equipment and equipment operation, procedures, regulations, manuals, and various other requirements. There were classified and unclassified parts. These exams were crewmember-specific but also included general areas applicable to everyone. The general areas covered such things as manual flap and landing gear lowering. We all passed. Since I was junior, I was the first evaluatee, and Dunc was the evaluator for the position on the plane that we flew: Raven 3 - the telemetry and BSC station. SAC's command-level evaluation unit, CEG, arrived late in 1966 to "evaluate" us: they who had never flown the plane operationally and knew nothing about the equipment operation and procedures. It was very aggravating having them there because we had to tell them all about everything so they could see how well we did what we told them we were going to do. We got through it somehow.

A sortie would start one of two ways: advanced warning, or none at all. In either case a call always came through on a secure telephone in a vault telling the Detachment staff the "what and when" of the mission. The notification started with a regular phone call that said "Go secure." Then the vault had to be opened and the secure phone used. Advanced warning was only a relative term. It meant anything from a few hours to a few minutes notice prior to the alert for the takeoff. If we had an early notification of a missile launch time the airplane would be backed out of the hangar, turned around with its nose into the wind, and readied for starting. Because of the usual wind strength, the nose had to be into the wind to ensue that the engines could be started. Wind up the engine tailpipes could prevent starts. Based on the suspected missile launch time the aircraft's takeoff time would be backed up about two hours or so. Preparation would then be at a more or less leisurely pace. If tasking came suddenly, klaxons would be activated all over the island to ensure that everyone was back at the hangars at their duty stations. We were on alert 24 hours every day. This frequently made life a little tense. Advanced warning or not, the klaxon was always sounded three times to alert the entire base so that everyone concerned would be where they were needed. This even included the fire department with its big yellow fire truck because there was always the possibility of an aircraft fire at engine start or takeoff. Yes, the fire trucks really were yellow. Klaxons were everywhere the crew or necessary support personnel might happen to be. In fact, we couldn't be any place were they weren't within earshot. Those little red boxes were loud enough to be heard over even the loudest background noises. It totally drowned out everything, even a pleasant dream.

Planned or sudden launches included putting the necessary classified material on the plane along with any necessary equipment not normally stored there. During these launches the normal checklists were almost ignored because of the urgency and because the crews were so well trained. The airplane was always "cocked"- ready to go without delay. Even so, everyone checked his crew station daily to ensure that the equipment was set correctly or that any procedural changes were incorporated properly. This routine often included turning on the equipment to be sure of its operation. This is not to say that checklists had little value. They always have a definite, useful purpose. They ensure nothing is forgotten. Some procedures have to be accomplished in a specific sequence or things can go wrong. Checklists are also a learning tool so that the novice can learn where all the equipment bits are located. Also part of the periodic checks was an inventory of available blank data tapes and BSC plates. The plates were kept in a freezer to ensure freshness. If conventional film had been used freezing would not have been necessary.

One such alert launch seemed to start off well enough. The winds were mild and visibility was good; however, as the plane was being pushed out of the hangar, the taxiway was found to be covered with a very thin, almost invisible, sheet of ice. The Det commander almost did a spin-out with his staff car! Needless to say, the plane was pulled back into the hangar, albeit with some difficulty, and the mission was aborted. On many missions the skies were heavily overcast, and the cloud layer could be miles thick. After takeoff when we finally broke through the cloud tops, the sky would be a crystal clear blue and absolutely beautiful. When Wanda Belle took off, she always emitted clouds of dense, black smoke caused by water-alcohol being injected into the engines for added thrust. Her turbojet engines didn't burn as cleanly as turbofan engines. Lisa Ann had turbofan engines with much more thrust and did not leave the black smoke trails. The Tell Two B-47 took off in much the same manner as Wanda Belle because it also used water injection and had turbojet engines.

My job as the security officer was to ensure that the cryptological data and other classified material was properly placed on the airplane. During an alert launch it meant running to the far end of the hangar to the data processing room, unlocking the freezer, grabbing the brief cases, relocking the freezer, and running to the plane. For a notice launch the procedure was the same, except I was able to assume a less hurried, often leisurely pace.

With everyone onboard the crew entry ladder was stowed inside, and the two stairs were pulled well clear of the plane. Then Lisa Ann was pushed out backwards by a large olive-drab tug using a long tow bar until well clear of the hangar. She was then turned 90o before the engines were started. Once clear of the hangar and turned around the ground power cart was plugged in, as was the air cart that supplied compressed air to start the engines. Under normal circumstances, all crewmembers would be strapped into their seats and ready for takeoff at this point. However, several folks were usually still up, moving around to tend to last minute items. After engine start the power and air carts were unplugged, and the plane taxied a few hundred yards to the middle of the runway, proceeded to the downwind end, and took off into the wind, all the time being wary of crosswinds and runway condition. If the runway condition reading (RCR) was less than 6, it was unsafe and should not be used. To test the RCR someone would drive a vehicle down the runway, slam on the brakes, and get a reading from a meter. A completely dry runway gave a reading of 24. If it were only wet, as by rain, the condition was considered a 9.

Sometimes the hangar door couldn't even be opened to push the plane out because the winds would be too strong: 50 knots or more. With Shemya's uncertain weather we were always concerned about low ceilings and low visibility. As I remember the criteria for takeoff was a 500 feet ceiling and a half-mile visibility down the runway. Even if winds were under 50 knots, the crosswind component in gusts could not be more than 25 knots, or the takeoff was aborted. A not uncommon technique was to wait for a time between gusts when the crosswind was under 25 knots and takeoff as quickly as possible. As we rolled down the runway the go/no-go point was the S-1 speed. S-1 had to be attained at a given distance down the runway. This is the speed at which, if an engine quit, takeoff could be completed or the plane stopped in the remaining runway distance. The S-1 call was made by the co-pilot. The speed varied with the gross weight of the airplane but was about 130 knots at 4 or 5000 feet down the runway. Takeoff speed was somewhere around 160 knots, also varying with gross weight. As we continued down the runway crosswind gusts often made the plane jolt to one side or the other. At about 150 knots, and about 1000 feet before liftoff, co-pilot called "rotate"on the interphone and the pilot pulled back on the control column enough for the nose wheels to come off of the runway. As the airspeed increased the plane became airborne. During climb-out, gusts and turbulence frequently continued for a number of miles until be were above the clouds and in clear air. Sometimes we encountered clear-air-turbulence that tossed us around, but rarely violently. Unlike commercial airliners we were not required to have our seatbelts fastened all the time while in the air. Many duties made being up and moving around absolutely essential. If the turbulence were extreme, crew safety was put first and the mission second. Crew and aircraft safety always came first. Turbulence is also known to cause motion sickness, especially if the cabin temperature is high. Fortunately, I wasn't troubled with it on Lisa Ann but I had been when flying B-47s.

Once airborne we headed northwesterly for about an hour and a half to position ourselves over the waters on the east side of the Soviet's Kamchatka Peninsula, only 500 miles from Shemya and well out into international airspace. During the climbout circuit breakers were set to apply power to the consoles and equipment. While enroute the we followed checklist procedures to turn all our equipment on and check the operation of each piece. This included annotating the various recording tapes with the mission number, date, operator's name, and security classification. Each mission had a unique, sequential number for positive identification. The number was used only once even if nothing happened, i.e., no missile was launched. Oxygen regulators were turned on and interior lights adjusted. Interior lights were set to low levels to make the various 'scopes easier to see.

Soviet fighters were sometimes airborne while we were in the area, but we never saw one. The impact site for the ICBMs was on the western side of peninsula itself. Part of the Det staff went to the AAFJOG to monitor the mission and pass last-minute information to the airplane via secure radio teletype. Tasking and updates for the sorties came from the very highest levels of the intelligence community. We had very high priority for any needed support. Aircraft parts could be, and were, diverted from any place in the world by any means necessary. Later, after Dunc was PCS to Eielson, he hand-delivered an emergency jug of SEPP coolant that had been especially flown in from Greenville.

At the appointed time the pilots turned the plane to a southwesterly heading so that the extremely powerful, on-board radar could intercept the incoming missile as it came over the distant horizon that could be a thousand miles away when we were at cruise altitude. Sometimes we had to turn to the heading before being in the optimum position because of a later-than-desired alerting time or an earlier-than-anticipated missile launch. If we were in position early we flew a racetrack pattern at reduced airspeed to stay in the proper area. The procedure was to fly the southwest heading as slowly as possible to afford the longest opportunity for intercept. Once at the south end the turn was made quickly and airspeed was raised to get back to the north end as soon as possible to start the process over again. Sometimes we had to turn southwesterly while still enroute to the orbit area and short of the usual point when the pilots saw the missile approaching or we received word that it was coming. This put us farther from the normal intercept area, but some data collection was still possible. Normal cruising airspeed is 420 knots (483 mph/Mach .78) when flying longer distances, but it was dropped considerably to be able to stay airborne longer. Fuel consumption, when flying at cruising speed and 30,000 feet, was about 10,000 pounds/hour after about two or three hours of flying. Fuel consumption was much higher during and right after takeoff when the plane was heavier and the engines were operating at maximum thrust. Overall, fuel usage was about 8.7% of the gross weight/hour. The RC-135U was 8.7% and the E's basic weight was similar but probably a little heavier. Also, the extra pods under the wings caused a 3% fuel use increase and thereby a 3% range reduction.

Kingdon R. Hawes (Webmaster)
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