~ Tragedy On A Small Island ~
Dr. K. A. Crooks

The sky could not be more different. As I reflect and write about the snow-swept events of March 15, 1981, I do so from my porch on a beautifully warm March day in 2004 Gainesville, Florida. My shades are on, a crisp lager beer in the cup holder and a rather worn photo album on my lap. There's not a cloud in the sky. A slight breeze is blowing through the trees, keeping the apparent temperature well within the lazy-day comfort zone. It's warm, but not yet the oppressive interior Florida summer. It is, therefore, perfect flying weather. Not that such matters to me. I don't like flying much. At least not as a passenger in the rear of a multi-engined jet. It takes no great effort to drift past to a time when that first became so.

~ Home Base ~

"Listen to me. You need to buy a house. It makes no sense not to." With those concluding words of advice, Major Terry Conkright sat back, his grizzled face and the dismissive eyes that served him well at the poker table crinkled in satisfaction. The veteran navigator had made a compelling argument, with grunts of approval from other officers at the breakfast table, to the young second lieutenant across from him. They, and the rest of the RC-135S Cobra Ball II '664 crew, had spent the night in the sleeping barracks of HQ 6th Strategic Wing, Eielson AFB, Alaska. Typically, no one slept well in that facility, and the night before seemed to have been no exception to the rule. The crew, along with fellow squadron mates scheduled to be transported on an accompanying KC-135, already were supposed to be nestled in their hangars at Shemya Airbase. However, the lousy March weather at the tiny Aleutian island made landing too risky, even by Cobra Ball standards.

Once the mission to Shemya from Eielson AFB, near Fairbanks, Alaska was scrubbed, I had taken the opportunity to call my brother for his birthday. Ken's date of birth, March 15th, was the butt of a long-standing joke about the evil portent of anything occurring on the ides of March. However, the Shakespeare play's reference to the day of Caesar's death made remembering my brother's birthday a whole lot easier. I always called Ken on his birthday, but chose to call him the night before on this occasion, as I was unsure when we would take off on the 15th. "Ken, I won't be calling you tomorrow. I'll be out and about," I said. Ken, a lawyer (and a rare, extremely ethical one), was the soul of discretion and knew enough not to press the issue. Instead we chatted about his plans for his birthday, and how he was going to adapt to being the ancient age of 27. "Beware the ides of March!" Ken said before hanging up.

~ The Crew ~

With a go ahead, the crew made its preparation for flight. The front end crew was dramatically split in experience. The pilots had fairly minimal hours for their respective positions in the aircraft, while the navigators were a seasoned crew. In the back of the aircraft, there was a well-shuffled deck of veterans and rookies. The Raven crew was led by standardization/evaluation tactical commander, Major Bill Bennett. Bill reminded me of my father, though younger and with a more earthly sense of humor. My first introduction to Bill was when he tossed my old USN seabag off a tanker with a snarl, "Who the hell is 'Crooks'?" Bill was on board to give a checkride to Richard "The Eagle" Grove. With his features, Grove would have been a classic Hollywood heavy, even down to his trademarked cigarette holder, which would have looked feminine in the teeth of anyone else. The only casting problem for Rick would have been his easy smile. Bright to a razor sharpness, Grove was endearing in the oddest way. In true Cobra Ball style, Grove was on board to give a checkride as well as absorb one. Also on the giving side was Capt. Bruce Carson, stan/eval Raven 4. Tall and wiry, Bruce had the intellect of a world-class engineer and a sense of humor not normally seen in the slide-rule crowd. His victim was Bill Maxwell, a quiet young captain newly assigned to the unit. Grove was to give me my checkride, but there were two other manual trackers on board. The more senior was Captain Bill Van Horn, a zoomie with the slight Errol Flynn build, and Lt. Loren Ginter, a bigger, pleasant fellow. Bill was to give "how to instruct" training to Loren. Others on the flight included Capt. Larry Mayfield, a handsome, decent gentleman from Tennessee, a set of Ravens 1-2, long-time flight veteran MSgt. Steve Kish approaching both his 40th birthday and retirement and Staff Sgt. Homer Hall, a young Texan with Texas-sized potential. Also on board were enlisted specialists from the Electronic Security Command Harry Coogle, Tommy Wood, Steven Balcer, David Gerke and Thomas Stuckey.

~ The Mission ~

The aircraft on this flight was scheduled to be full, since the Ball was being re-deployed to Shemya after being washed in Spokane. The re-deployment, rather than a typical Busy Relay on '121, not only resulted in every seat taken on the Ball, but some 24th personnel were having to fly out to "The Rock" in the back of a standard KC-135 tanker, which was slated to refuel the Ball on the way. While flying the tanker meant not sweating checkrides and having a flight typically a bit shorter in duration, it also meant several hours of the ambiance of sling seats, cargo and noise. Leading this away team was one of the 24th's true characters, James Patrick "Jim" O'Leary, a courageous, intelligent and funny man who would have succeeded in any endeavor he chose but went Air Force. Also tanker bound were Steve LaFayette, Craig Scott, Paul Jeanes and Thomas "Wes" Thibodeaux a pretty solid veteran group. Wes, in fact, was my "host" when I first got to Fairbanks, Alaska at the tail end of 1980. Stepping forth to greet me in sub-zero December weather, Wes nonchalantly said, "Welcome to Alaska it's about to get worse." He was right. The temperature plunged to minus 35 degrees F and stayed there for the next three weeks.

The weather predicted for Shemya was to worsen (it's always "worse" in early March) as the evening wore on. The tanker and '664 would slide in before it got too terrible.

I was only on board for the checkride, a pleasure for which I pleaded to receive as I was told that if I made that flight, I would break the record for the fastest checkout of any crewmember in the Cobra Ball program. I had no idea if this was true (I half-guessed they told this to everyone as a motivator), but it seemed to be worth making the effort. I was to return the next morning on the tanker hopefully as a newly qualified MT. Therefore, I only packed the minimum: an over night bag, a change of clothes, my flight manuals and checklist, and other flight and survival gear. As this was my first checkride, I played it safe. If they issued something to me, I took it. I had a foot locker at Shemya with some personal supplies, so I wasn't too worried about being extended a day or so. At least that was my plan. In any case, it all fit in my A-3 bag or my flight helmet bag. I wore a pretty standard outfit. T-shirts and shorts, Nomex thermal underwear, wool socks, a Nomex flight suit, mukluks, a parka and a black, wool Greek fisherman's hat. Loren wore similar headgear and the rest wore whatever they felt comfortable in. The cap was as comfortable under the standard USAF headsets as anything else I could find. What we all didn't wear was the individually fitted, white, issued flight helmet. The rest of the crew, so far as I knew, had packed for a full two-week or so deployment.

E. Steffen
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Kingdon R. Hawes (Webmaster)
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