The list of fatal crashes involving the 55th Wing’s vital RC-135 reconnaissance fleet thankfully is short. But every one of those is seared into the memory of survivors and witnesses alike.
That’s certainly true of the crash of Cobra Ball 664 on March 15, 1981, in a blizzard at Shemya, a rugged outpost in the western Aleutians. Every five years, members of the Wing’s 45th Reconnaissance Squadron at Offutt Air Force Base host a memorial event honoring the six airmen who perished in the fire and snow.
This is an updated version of a story that first appeared in The World-Herald in 2016.
Capt. Bill Van Horn peered out the window of the RC-135S reconnaissance jet into an Alaska blizzard.
The Cobra Ball II aircraft carrying 24 airmen was attempting to land on the barren Air Force airstrip at Shemya, an island near the western tip of the Aleutians.
Buffeted by a severe crosswind, the four-engine jet wobbled unsteadily toward a cliff at the end of the runway.
Van Horn, sitting just in front of the right wing, felt a bump as the plane scraped something. Then it lurched upward before hitting the ground.
The landing gear sheared off, and the No. 3 and No. 4 engines fell off. He saw flames out his starboard-side window.
“The belly of the airplane just slammed on the runway,” said Van Horn, an electronic warfare officer.
The plane screeched down the concrete, breaking up as it slid off the pavement’s edge, down a snowy embankment and onto the beach. Van Horn and his crewmates found themselves trapped in the burning wreckage. Some of them wouldn’t get out. Remarkably, 18 survived.
A monument honoring the six airmen who died in the crash of Cobra Ball 664 (a contraction of the plane’s coded mission name and its tail number, 61-2664) has been displayed at Offutt Air Force Base since reconnaissance missions ended at Shemya two decades ago. It stands outside the headquarters of the 45th Reconnaissance Squadron, the 55th Wing unit that took over Cobra Ball after the Cold War.
“I’m sure (airmen) walk past it every day and never knew what happened,” said Paul Jeanes, 65, of Papillion, a retired electronic warfare officer, or “Raven,” who helped rescue survivors that day at Shemya.
The 55th Wing and its veterans will gather Monday on the 40th anniversary to honor the memory of the lost airmen: Maj. William Bennett, Capt. Larry Mayfield, 1st Lt. Loren Ginter, Master Sgt. Stephen Kish, Staff Sgt. Steven Balcer and Staff Sgt. Harry L. Parsons III.
Usually, the service is held at the monument. This year, because of the COVID-19 pandemic, it will be a virtual ceremony.
“It’s remembering those who were lost, those who served, those who were there,” said Kerry Crooks, who also survived the crash and helped organize the event. “It was a very dangerous time.”
For years, survivors and eyewitnesses rarely talked about the crash, in part because of the secrecy that surrounded the Cobra Ball mission during the Cold War. Their job was to fly off Russia’s far eastern Kamchatka Peninsula and monitor Soviet missile tests, then report the results to Strategic Air Command at Offutt.
“You felt like you were doing something important,” said Von Clemence, a Raven who survived Cobra Ball 664.
The unit — known then as the 24th Strategic Reconnaissance Squadron — was headquartered at remote Eielson Air Force Base, 26 miles from Fairbanks, Alaska. Eielson served as the maintenance base for the two Cobra Ball aircraft, and the airmen’s families stayed there.
It was an urban paradise compared with Shemya, which airmen called “The Rock.”
“The Rock” comprised 2 miles by 4 miles of tundra, with radar and weather stations in a few World War II-era buildings. The Pacific Ocean and the Bering Sea collided in the Aleutians. Shemya was infamous for its terrible weather and was considered by some pilots to be the Air Force’s most treacherous airfield.
“It was always either rain, fog or snow — or all three — at Shemya,” said Clemence, now 73.
Cobra Ball crews lived next to their aircraft in a pair of hangars alongside the airfield. They entertained themselves with basketball, pingpong, cards, a single-channel television and films screened on a Super 8 movie projector.
A klaxon would summon them to fly a mission, typically in the middle of the night.
“It was kind of like a firehouse,” Jeanes said. “You’d be sitting. Then when the horn would blast, you’d bolt for the jets.”
Crews rotated from Eielson for two-week stints at Shemya.
“Everybody knew it was crap out there,” said David Gerke, a technical sergeant and Morse code specialist on Cobra Ball 664. “I just did it because I loved flying.”
Gerke volunteered for his spot on Cobra Ball 664 the day of the crash. Two crews were scheduled to fly to Shemya to begin a two-week rotation.
Twenty-four airmen flew on the jet that day — 10 more than usual, in part because several Ravens were doing proficiency checks.
Jeanes, Wes Thibodeaux and several other crew members traveled separately on a KC-135 jet tanker that refueled 664 en route and landed at Shemya three hours ahead of the Cobra Ball.
They took off about 2:30 p.m. An hour or so into the flight, Jeanes shot a photo of the in-flight refueling. It was the last taken of Cobra Ball 664 intact.
During the flight, Van Horn was giving instruction to a younger officer, 1st Lt. Loren Ginter. Before landing, he sent Ginter to sit in one of the rear seats with several airmen who hadn’t been part of the testing. 2nd Lt. Kerry Crooks, another junior officer who was training on the flight, stayed beside him.
The weather had worsened at Shemya.
“All we could see was snow, all we could feel was the turbulence, and all we could sense was trouble,” Crooks wrote in a 2004 account of the crash called “The Ides of March,” on the website RC135.com.
Gerke was one of eight airmen sitting in the rear of the aircraft.
“The approach was so erratic,” he said. “It seemed almost like we were on a yo-yo. And then we hit.”
At about 10:45 p.m., the plane clipped some light stanchions just short of the runway. The main landing gear and two right-wing engines then hit the runway and were sheared off. The tail slammed into the ground.
“I saw flames coming down (the aisle) right where we were,” Gerke said. It was the last thing he remembered before blacking out.
The pilot apparently didn’t realize how badly damaged the jet was and applied full power, hoping to take off and go around again.
But the plane was now unflyable. The uneven thrust sent the jet careering down the runway, rotating 180 degrees and sliding sideways down a small hill.
The weakened tail section broke off in a wall of flame.
When the plane stopped, Van Horn dashed out the left overwing exit, thinking Crooks was following.
Van Horn didn’t know that Crooks’ right leg had gotten stuck under some heavy electronics gear. Crooks struggled to free himself as smoke and fire filled the plane. It seemed like forever before he jerked free, his kneecap broken and ankle ligaments torn.
Finally he scrambled out over the left wing, flames swirling around him.
Crooks was the last man to escape from Cobra Ball 664 alive.
Across the airfield in their crew lounge, Jeanes, Thibodeaux and several other officers had been waiting. Suddenly they heard an announcement over the tower frequency.
“The first thing I heard was ‘The plane has crashed,’ ” said Thibodeaux, 64, of Papillion.
They grabbed parkas and raced to the crew bus and steered it out onto the tarmac. They struggled to see through the heavy, blowing snow.
“We saw pieces and parts of burning airplane,” Thibodeaux said.
The bus stopped on the runway near the flaming wreckage. Suddenly an airman smelling of jet fuel raced onto the bus.
It turned out to be Staff Sgt. Homer Hall, a photo technician who had been sitting in the midsection of the Cobra Ball. He had escaped uninjured from the wreckage.
“Once I got to the bus I let them know there were survivors,” said Hall, now 67 and living in Texas. “Their instincts took over then.”
“We went out in the snow to try to pull the rest of them out,” Jeanes said.
The five officers scoured the runway area and found more dazed and freezing men who had escaped via the cockpit hatch and the right overwing exit. Seeing no one else, the rescuers drove to the hangar so those survivors could warm up and get medical treatment.
Just outside the rear of the aircraft, however, Gerke had regained consciousness in a snowbank. The fuselage had broken just a foot behind his seat, and he had been thrown clear of the disintegrating plane.
He looked back toward the wreckage and saw another crewman, Tech. Sgt. Tommie Wood, leaning over, silhouetted against the flames, trying to help Loren Ginter, whose legs were on fire.
“He was throwing snow on Ginter,” Gerke said. “We tried to pull him out.”
Gerke and Wood — who had suffered a broken wrist and broken ribs — freed Ginter from his seat and pulled him a few feet away. Then an explosion tore through the wreck as a fuel tank exploded.
Gerke felt intense heat on his face and later learned he had been severely burned. Leaving Wood to tend to Ginter, Gerke crawled up the snowy slope to an emergency vehicle, which took him to the hangar.
“I was in shock,” Gerke said. “They threw blankets on me. Everybody was staring.”
Meanwhile, after emerging from the wreckage, Van Horn and Crooks had circled around the back of the aircraft. They saw Ginter and pulled him away from the plane.
Van Horn waited with his badly injured student until rescuers arrived with a stretcher, and he helped carry Ginter to a truck on the runway. But the 28-year-old lieutenant died of his injuries the next day.
“The plane burned all night,” Clemence recalled.
Later, Van Horn, Crooks, Wood and Gerke each received the Airman’s Medal, the Air Force’s highest award for noncombat bravery, for their efforts to save Ginter. Jeanes, Thibodeaux and three other officers on the bus earned Commendation Medals for their actions.
Of the 18 airmen who survived the crash of Cobra Ball 664, nine were injured — Gerke and Crooks suffering the worst of the injuries. It took two days to clear enough debris from the runway to evacuate the injured airmen to the nearest hospital, which was in Anchorage, 1,500 miles away.
Gerke’s eyes were swollen shut from the burns on his face, and tubes in his throat prevented him from talking. His wife, who had stayed in Omaha during his Alaska tour, flew up from Offutt on a military jet, fearing the worst.
Gerke was transferred to an Army hospital in San Francisco, where his hospital room soon filled with cards and telegrams.
After months of excruciating recovery, he was transferred to a finance command at Offutt. He stayed there for a year, ultimately retiring from the Air Force in 1987. He then moved to Atlanta to be near family. He got an accounting job with the State of Georgia. Today, at age 76, he is retired and lives in suburban Phoenix.
He said the burn scars are almost invisible now.
“I was just lucky,” Gerke said.
Crooks hated hospitals. Despite smoke inhalation as well as injuries to his spine, hip, knee, ankle and eyes, he managed to get discharged within a few days to recuperate at Eielson. He left the Air Force in 1987, in part because of the lingering effects of his injuries. He became a university professor in Florida.
Forty years later, he’s still uncomfortable as a passenger on commercial flights.
“My love of flying evaporated,” Crooks said.
There was little mystery about the cause of the crash: a shaky landing, in bad weather, on an airfield with a runway that lacked overruns or shoulders.
“If it had been a normal runway it would have just been a hard landing,” said Van Horn, 68, who lives in Colorado.
Cobra Ball 664’s flight crew was relatively inexperienced, according to survivors, and the airmen were new to Alaska, which pilots agree is the most challenging place reconnaissance crews fly. In nearly 50 years of Air Force operations, all four serious accidents involving the RC-135s occurred in Alaska.
After the crash of Cobra Ball 664, survivors say, the squadron brought in much more experienced flight crews.
Offutt’s 55th Wing, heir to the Cobra Ball mission, now memorializes the airmen who died at Shemya. The wing hosted ceremonies on the 15th, 25th, 30th and 35th anniversaries, as well.
Crooks said the physical and mental scars of the crash are still fresh. So is the memory of those names on the monument.
“For many, this has not gone. They are still with us,” Crooks said. “They deserve to have this memory preserved, and be honored.”