Something is very wrong.
This is not what landing should feel like.
Looking through my 38-inch optical window, I watched as the number three and number four engines fell off the right wing of our RC-135S Cobra Ball aircraft.
After Electronic Warfare Officer training at March Air Force Base, I was stationed as a BUFF EWO at Guam. I loved my B-52 assignment—more than I ever expected. I loved the island and its great scuba diving, night-time lobstering, and sailing. I loved flying in the BUFF at 500 feet AGL just south of the North Korean DMZ. When my 15-month bachelor tour to Guam was ending, I extended. Then I extended again. Because all good things must come to an end, it was finally time to think about my next assignment. Being a SAC EWO (I still have to translate many of my acronym conversations), that usually meant a follow-on assignment to a B-52 base stateside. After Guam, let’s just say that a B-52 to Minot, North Dakota was not exactly my ideal situation.
I had never been to Alaska. I checked on whether there were any SAC EWOs there—YES! I decided I would try to make Alaska my next assignment, rather than just pass through as a tourist. There was a reconnaissance mission flying out of Shemya Air Force Base in the Aleutian Islands. The RC-135 part of the mission at that time was classified. I've heard the mission has since been declassified and I’ve actually read newspaper articles about our mission there. Nevertheless, I still don't feel comfortable about describing our mission here, so I guess you'll just have to Google it. Anyway I notified my career counselor (or whatever it was they call that person) and said I would like the assignment for the RC-135S based at Eielson Air Force Base near Fairbanks. I was told it would be difficult for me to get the job because I should probably be pressed into a northern tier assignment. My argument that Fairbanks, Alaska could be considered by some (like me, living in Guam) to be “northern tier” was not met with a lot of humor by my career counselor, who had the enviable job of filling slots at Minot. Nevertheless, I still somehow managed to receive the assignment to the RC-135S.
I went directly from Guam to Alaska. It was early 1979. The training for the RC-135S was totally in-house. There were only two of these aircraft. So all the training took place at the operational base. I was designated to be a Manual Tracker. My job was to take photographs on film photo (before there were digital pictures) at the rate of 3,000 frames per second. The right wing of the RC-135 is very distinctive—it is painted black to keep the glare of the sun from messing with our photography.
Both of the RC-135S aircraft were permanently located at Shemya Air Force Base, and would only leave when needed for maintenance. Back at home base at Eielson Air Force Base we would often spend two or three weeks at the Base, doing various types of training, then fly out to Shemya where we would train in the aircraft. Shemya Air Force Base is not the type of place normal people would want to spend much time. The permanent party people would be there for one year, broken up in the middle of the tour with 30 or more days of leave. Although my visits there were short, during my five years stationed in Alaska, I actually spent more than 400 nights at Shemya—far more than the permanent party people.
Shemya is a small island—much smaller even than Guam. We would be there for 2 weeks or more at a time. Sometimes we were busy, but often we were not. It’s amazing what we would find to do during our expansive spare time. One place to visit was actually the local trash dump—once an office at Shemya had ordered furniture, and twice as much was delivered than what was ordered, so the extra new furniture was all taken out to the trash, much to our delight. Classic World War II Coca-Cola bottles were a favorite treasure. We also visited the beaches—one of the beaches was called Ammo Beach because after World War II, ammo was just dumped on the beach. The brass was beaten down by the waves, with the beach eventually turned to shiny brass.
Most of the provisions at Shemya were delivered by ship, which arrived twice a year. One of the ships sprung a leak and saltwater had drenched part of the load on the ship. Pallets of cigarettes were hauled off to the infamous trash dump. Some of my crewmembers then rescued some of the saltwater soaked cigarettes, dried them out, then smoked them. Hard core.
A fellow crew member and I took wet suits to Shemya on one of our tours. We had a decent time snorkeling in the Bering Sea, until we heard the bullhorns telling us to come out. The Security Forces thought they had finally caught some bad guys trying to invade their island.
The passage of that spare time now takes us to March 15, 1981. The Ides of March. RC-135S aircraft 664 had been at Eielson Air Force Base for maintenance. Our crew would fly the aircraft back to Shemya, doing a training mission on the way. A KC-135 tanker was also making the trip, loaded with people and provisions for the weekly Shemya swap-out. We completed the training mission. The tanker aircraft ahead of us landed uneventfully. It was now time for us to complete the mission, land, and have a beer.
Shemya is known for its atrocious weather. One day while walking past the base totem pole a fellow crewdog remarked that the weather that day was pretty good—we could actually see the top of the totem pole.
During a recent mission, the Cobra Ball had made four approaches to Shemya in bad weather, executing a go-around at minimums each time. The aircraft then reached Bingo fuel, so it had to divert back to Eielson Air Force Base. Flying approach after approach after approach in bad weather down to minimums, and never being able to break through and land, then having to fly hours to the alternate, makes for an amazing day.
This day as we approached we did our normal pre-landing checklist. I was an instructor and I had two students with me on that flight—Loren and Kerry. Loren was a good friend, in addition to being my student. His wife had cooked a great homemade meal for us just a few days before. I had been training him for most of the flight, but I now sent him to the back of the aircraft so Kerry could sit next to me and I could train him during the landing phase of our flight. Not being in the cockpit, only later did I learn the details of what happened that night. The aircraft apparently broke out of the cloud deck at minimums, but still with scattered clouds below. Airfield lights were identified, and the aircraft was turned toward the light. However, what the crew thought were the runway lights were actually the approach lights, putting us just a few feet below our intended glidepath. Normally, being a few feet below the glidepath would mean that the aircraft would touch down on the overrun rather than the runway, and then just continue on the runway. Obviously, this was not the desired outcome, but not catastrophic— unless, of course, there is a WAIVER, and there is no overrun because the end of the runway is actually a cliff. We were just a few feet low, but that meant that when we got to the edge of the runway/cliff, the aircraft landing gear was sheared off. The body of our aircraft now thumped onto the runway. It was then that I watched the number four engine depart the aircraft, followed an instant later by the number three engine departing. All this was happening in milliseconds.
Our aircraft could have just slid to a stop down the runway. But it wasn’t that type of day.
Pilots are trained to execute a go-around in most cases where the landing is not going well. However, go-arounds don’t actually go well when the engines on one side of the aircraft are gone. As the throttles were slammed forward, I watched as two streams of fuel poured out of the wing where the engines had been. I then saw the two streams of fuel ignite and become torches curving back as our aircraft continued to move forward.
Being a highly trained crew member, I figured out that was an emergency situation. In the flying world, we have bold-faced emergency checklists. We memorize the checklists because in emergencies it’s not productive to have to thumb through these checklists. One of the bold- faced emergency procedures for EWOs is Smoke and Fumes. The necessary procedure is to go on Oxygen at 100%. Our smoke masks are on our helmets. I immediately took off my headset and put on my helmet with my oxygen mask to comply with the emergency procedure.
I was not an Aero major, but it doesn't take a lot of training to realize that when full power is put onto the aircraft, there are two engines on the left side of the aircraft, and there are no engines on the right side of the aircraft, there is going to be dramatic change of direction of the aircraft. The aircraft, following the laws of physics, veered off the runway. Normally, this alone would not be catastrophic because the sides of runways are required to be smooth and cleared of obstacles. However, Shemya also had a WAIVER for that. To the sides of the runway at Shemya were piles of beams of lumber, boulders, and mounds of earth. Our still fast-moving aircraft now tore through those obstacles. It was not very many moments later when the back end of the aircraft tore apart from the front. Our wounded bird then came to an abrupt halt.
My student and I unstrapped from our seats and headed for the nearest exit. I later learned that my friend Joe Kettner had been seated next to that emergency exit, and he had opened it and departed. Another friend, Von Clements, had his new expensive Canon camera on the table in front of him. He did not reach for his camera as he left—he had other priorities.
My student and I were now outside the aircraft in a howling blizzard. My student was wearing his standard issue military parka. I had not put my parka on for landing. However, I did have my helmet on—my foam helmet with the visors. I put down the clear visor, and was actually warmer than my student in his parka. Due to the wind and sleet, I took my student by the hand and we went back to where the aircraft had broken apart. We found another crew member with an arm injury. I could see our operations building, and we pointed him in that direction. I later learned that Paul Jeanes, USAFA, ’84, had been on the Tanker before us, and he immediately began organizing a rescue.
My student and I then came upon where the aircraft had broken apart. There had been crew members strapped in the aircraft at that unfortunate location. We found my first student, who was lying partially in flames. We grabbed him and pulled him to a safer location. At that time, one of the fuel tanks ignited, with the concussion knocking us to the ground.
My student was getting severely cold, so I pointed him in the direction of the operations building and sent him there to get help and tell the others where we were.
So what does a man do in a blizzard, surrounded by flames and wreckage, next to a badly burned comrade? I prayed for him. Then I went through wreckage to see if there was anyone else needing help. I found parts of other crew members, but there was obviously nothing that could now help these comrades. I went back to my first student, the man we had pulled from the wreckage, and spoke and prayed with him until help finally arrived. Four medics with a stretcher eventually arrived. One of the medics went into convulsions over the sight, so the other three men and I put my student on the stretcher, grabbed the other medic, and carried the stretcher over the boulders and wood beams and aircraft wreckage back to safety.
My student—my friend—died later that night. He was one of six fatalities.
I was back on the flying schedule the next week.
Bill Van Horn
9491 South Johnson Court
Littleton, CO 80127
USAFA Class of '74 - published a book of our experiences for our 40th reunion!