It was the best of times and it was the worst of times.

James C. Christensen

Once upon a time... there were two very special airplanes that lived.... far.... far.... away on a tiny island in the Bering Sea. One was named "Rivet Ball" and the other was named "Rivet Amber". Very few people knew anything about these two planes or the men that flew them. Even family members knew very little. That's because their mission was... TOP SECRET.

The Soviets wanted to know everything about these two planes and what they did. They didn't like them at all.... not one bit. The aircrews loved their airplanes and what they did with them. They loved every minute of it.... even to this day. The story I'm about to tell you goes all the way back to the 60s when the United States and Soviet Union were locked in a "Cold War" battle of "Mutual Assured Destruction" (MAD). Remember the classic movie of 1964, Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb?

The main players in this tale were called "Ravens". Their official title was Electronic Warfare Officer (EWO). The Russians thought of them more like spies than Ravens and were just itching for a chance to shoot them down. Well.... none of that matters very much anymore because many things have changed since then. Those were the good old days of the "Cold War". The only thing that remains now is our memory of a very special time and place in our lives. This story is about some of those memories. I think you will find them interesting.

K. Hawes
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This is "Rivet Ball" (#59-1491) a.k.a "Wanda Belle" (Named after Wanda Leigh O'Rear, daughter of Big Safari program director Mr. F. E. O'Rear). She's "... the first KC-135 of any variant to perform a reconnaissance mission. (Source: Page #108)" She's also the very first RC-135S.

There were no other planes like her at the time. She was unique and first in many ways. In the very beginning Rivet Ball was known as "Nancy Rae". She was also known as "The Ball", "The Bitch" and "491". The photo above shows her leaving LTV Electrosystems in Greenville, Texas after repairs and modifications. She's headed for the remote Island of Shemya in the Bering Sea which is very close to Russia and their missile test range.

When Rivet Ball first deployed to Shemya on 31 December 1961 her name was "Nancy Rae" and she was a model JKC-135A. The original 41 men assigned to fly and maintain her were known as "Ali Baba and The 40 Thieves". Members of the Ali Baba group that were permanently assigned (PCS) to Shemya for one year wanted special recognition and created an informal organization of their own called "The Black Pearl Society".

Ed Steffen
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Eventually, Nancy Rae (#59-1491) returned to LTV in Greenville, Texas for repairs and modifications. One of the most recognizable changes was the addition of a "Hog Nose". The new extended nose was needed for installation of a special "S-Band" tracking antenna. This receiving antenna was controlled by the Raven-3 position (L) and used to track a beacon on the reentry vehicle (RV).

With repairs and modifications completed on 7 October 1963, Nancy Rae was renamed "Wanda Belle" and her model number was changed from JKC-135A to RC-135S making her the very first RC-135S in the Air Force and SAC.

In 1967 a second repair and modification cycle was completed at LTV and this time her name was changed to "Rivet Ball". The name Rivet Ball stayed with her until the very end.

Name changes were routine back then when major modifications were completed. The only thing that didn't change was the mission. Rivet Ball and crew were directed to monitor and record the terminal launch phase of all Soviet ICBMs (Inter-Continental Ballistic Missiles) targeted into the Kamchatka Peninsula, Pacific Ocean and elsewhere.

B. Bima
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Here's an X-Ray view of Rivet Ball showing her crew positions and equipment orientation. The right side of the aircraft was dedicated to cameras and tracking equipment. Crew positions were on the left side.

Rivet Ball had more photographic equipment onboard than Hollywood could ever dream of. We had 16mm, 35mm, 70mm, ballistic streak, high speed cine, wide angle, telephoto, auto tracking, infrared, black and white, color.... you name it.... we had it. Lets just say we had the spectrum covered from all angles in every way possible. We also had a full ELINT (Electronic Intelligence) and COMINT (Communications Intelligence) capability onboard. We were an Airborne Electro-Optical Gunship loaded for bear and raring to go. The only thing we lacked were guns for self protection. We were unarmed.

K. Hawes - Budd Rice
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Rivet Ball is now about to land on the remote island of Shemya in the Bering Sea. She has flown more than 3,850.2 miles (As The Crow Flies) after leaving LTV at Majors Field in Greenville, Texas. The building just left of center is her hangar (#2) and home for her aircrew.

The two small objects in the upper left hand corner are two HUGE antennas named "White Alice". These antennas played an important role in providing reliable communications between early warning radar stations.

K. Hawes
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Here's Rivet Ball at home on Shemya. The ten circular windows on her starboard side are used for tracking cameras. The small dome on top of the fuselage is where the Manual Tracker (MT) sits and observes missile reentry. The upper surface of her right wing and inner half of engine nacelles #3 and #4 were painted flat black to reduce glare.

A. Hansen
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The island of Shemya is very small compared to most. It only measures two miles wide and four miles long (2x4). It wasn't size that mattered with this island though..... it was location, location, location. It's hard to imagine a more remote operating location than Shemya. The landscape was barren and the weather was hostile. It also endured many earthquakes and hurricane force winds. Anyone familiar with Shemya will readily understand why it's called "The Rock".

Living on the remote island of Shemya (Black Pearl of the Aleutians) is one thing, trying to land on it is quite another. The Bad News: One end of the runway drops off into a 40 foot ravine and the other end drops off into the Bering Sea. The Good News: If you manage to land safely, you'll find.... "A Girl Behind Every Tree".

Welcome to Det-1, 6th Strategic Wing (6th SW), SAC and the 24th Strategic Reconnaissance Squadron (24th SRS).

24th SRS

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Copyright 2000 Kingdon R. Hawes (Webmaster)
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