Jump to content
Sign in to follow this  
Jennings Heilig

I'm so excited I'm about to bust!!

Recommended Posts

A gentleman on the Facebook KC-135 group recently offered to trade some of my profile illustrations of "his" '135s for this data plate.  It came from arguably the single most historically significant single member of the entire KC-135 family.  It belonged to 55-3121, which was the fourth KC-135A built, and the first one delivered directly to the USAF, not part of the flight test program.  She was accepted by the USAF on 29 April 1957, and spent her first few years as a testbed, mainly at Wright-Patterson AFB, Ohio.  In 1962 she was selected for conversion to SPEED LIGHT ECHO, in support of US and "foreign" above ground nuclear testing.  In 1963 she went to LTV in Greenville, Texas for conversion to the GARLIC SALT/RIVET STAND KC-135R configuration (the first use of the KC-135R designation, long before anyone thought of putting new engines on them), which was a very spooky special reconnaissance configuration.  She sprouted a row of giant "towel rail" antennas along her spine that caused people to refer to her as a "porcupine".  In 1967 she was modified (still as a KC-135R) to the BRIAR PATCH configuration.  She lost her refueling boom, and gained a giant A-frame trapeze in its place that carried a large missile shaped antenna pod called the "blivet".  The blivet was trailed behind the aircraft on 1000' of steel cable to get the antennas well clear of EM interference from the aircraft itself.  This was used to collect "foreign" radar signals and do highly technical precision parameter measurements (PPM) of interest to "non-military government organizations" (aka the CIA).  In 1969 '121 was sent to Lockheed in Ontario, California for conversion to KC-135T (also the first use of this MDS) under the COBRA JAW program name.  She kept the big A-frame and the blivet, and gained the characteristic RC-135 type hog nose, below which were a pair of pointed, conical "fang" antennas (appropriate for a COBRA) that spun at a high rate when active.

 

It was as COBRA JAW that my own connection to '121 starts. My uncle (my only uncle) was an airborne USAF Russian linguist, part of USAF Security Service.  His job was to monitor "foreign" voice frequencies to alert the crew if/when/where there were bad guy fighters coming up to greet them.  He was going through Bootstrap to get his degree at Creighton University in Omaha while assigned to Offutt AFB.  He deployed with COBRA JAW to RAF Mildenhall in 1971.  '121 had had a Ford Cobra Jet logo painted on her nose for the deployment, which garnered some interest from the bad guys on their first mission.  A few days later they were doing another mission over the Baltic when my uncle heard the bad guy say "Ah, I see the cobra has returned!".  That got reported up the chain (WAY up the chain), and the edict came down to remove the artwork before the next mission.  

 

The PPM mission was taken over by the three RC-135U COMBAT SENT platforms that came online in 1972, allowing '121's mission equipment to be removed, when she became an RC-135T. and became an RC front end crew trainer, first at Kadena, then for a short time at Grissom (not sure why, as there have never been RCs based there), and then in December of 1979, at Eielson AFB, Alaska.  She allowed the crews of the RC-135S COBRA BALL fleet to have a trainer to use for practicing the tricky approach at Shemya without risking a valuable operational aircraft.  In 1982 she went through the basic KC-135E conversion, gaining new (gently used) TF33 engines.  It was while she was at Eielson that my own very personal connection with '121 came to pass.

 

One lazy Monday afternoon in February of 1985, yours truly was the Charlie Flight commander at the 6981st Electronic Security Squadron at Elmendorf AFB, Alaska.  A big part of our tasking was keeping track of what the Soviets thought our reconnaissance aircraft were doing, and thus keeping them out of trouble when they were plying their trade from Vladivostok northward.  We had no missions airborne anywhere even close to our area of responsibility that day, so we were sort of idling and passing the time.  We had secure teletype OPSCOMM circuits to various other units, one of which was the 6985th ESS at Eielson (which provided the back end linguist crews for RC missions out of there).  We almost never used the Eielson circuit, but as I happened to be walking past it, it chattered to life.  All the message said was "AN RC IS DOWN".  That's it.  Well when you hear that an RC-135 is down, that can only mean trouble.  I replied with a request for clarification, since as far as we knew there were no RCs airborne anywhere north of Okinawa that day.  No answer.  Again.  No answer.  So I went over to the analysis floor and got on our (extremely unreliable) secure voice telephone and called the 85th.  No answer.  Again.  No answer.  My surveillance & warning supervisor and mission supervisor were now getting very worried, and were tasking our intercept operators with spinning and grinning on every frequency known to see if there was any excitement anywhere in the PVO radar net.  Nada.  Zip.  Well, Eielson has said that an RC is down, and they don't generally joke around about stuff like that.  So I had the S&W supe start drafting a CRITIC message.  A CRITIC message can be originated almost anywhere in the entire US government or military, and is issued when any issue of potential national or international importance occurs.  When a CRITIC goes out, it goes out to EVERYBODY on the planet.  It wakes people up in the Pentagon, the White House, the State Department, CIA, DIA, etc, etc.  You don't issue a CRITIC lightly.

 

I once more tried the secure voice phone, but no answer.  So I got mad and went out of the secure area downstairs to the day shop and called the ops floor at the 6985th on a non-secure line to find out what the hell was going on.  A tech sergeant finally answered, and I told him who and where I was, and that they needed to answer their OPSCOMM or their secure phone, and that we needed some more information before we issued a CRITIC and got everybody's tit in a ringer...

 

As it turned out, '121 was being flown by three desk jockeys from the 6th Strategic Wing that day, one of whom was making his last flight before leaving the wing.  The then-new microwave landing system had been being trialed in Alaska, mainly to aid in landing at the always tricky Shemya.  '121 had an MLS installed, and the crew had gone down to Valdez to practice MLS approaches.  The problems with that were, 1) the MLS approach into Valdez (which sits in a box canyon) was only approved for STOL aircraft such as the Dash-7, and was far too steep for a heavy jet,  2) weather was below MLS minimums and deteriorating, and 3) Valdez was not an authorized 6th Strat Wing location for practice approaches.  After several tries at it, '121 impacted a mountain several miles from Valdez, killing all three crew instantly.  It was mid-winter in Alaska, and it took nearly a year to locate the wreckage.  The Air Force sent one SR-71 to Alaska to do a SLAR search for it, and the Navy contributed a P-3 that did low level MAD grids all over that part of Alaska, and neither of them ever found anything.  It was a hiker who finally found some pieces of aircraft that had washed downstream in the valley where the crash occurred who alerted authorities and eventually allowed the wreckage to be located.

 

The way the data plate came to be in the possession of the gentleman I'm getting it from stemmed from a mission in 1981.  Don was climbing up the ladder in the crew entry chute below the cockpit.  The data plate had a bent corner, which caught on his flight suit and tore a big gash in it.  In his anger, he went into his flight bag, pulled out a screwdriver, and pulled the plate off and threw it in his bag!  He's kept it all these years, and it's now on its way to me.

 

I plan on framing my illustration of '121 (below) and mounting the data plate with it.  

 

 

5IXSiF.jpg

 

UqNnmt.jpg

 

vKiSAY.png

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

My Father had a rather large role in designing some of the "sensitive electronic systems" on Combat Sent and Rivet Joint Aircraft.  I can't tell you which ones  because he couldn't tell me... Classified you know.

Edited by Juggernut

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

There was a guy I flew C-5's with that had cross trained to Flight Engineer. He was the crew chief on "Lisa Ann" and closed the crew door on them at Shemya when it disappeared on a flight to Eielson AFB. He had a picture of the airplane taking off and the story of it disappearing and the memorial flyer for the crew framed in his house. 

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

That is an awesome story, I know what it means to you to have something from a personal connection..it’s not good that crewmen had died, but holding that in your hand is powerful.

 

I have a mission flag from Afghanistan that the 2/17 Kiowa pilots sent me for helping them. I will cherish that flag forever, they were nice enough to put it in a presentation case for me. 

Edited by 1to1scale

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

A very interesting story Jennings, many thanks for taking the the time and trouble to set it out here.

 

12 hours ago, Jennings Heilig said:

He deployed with COBRA JAW to RAF Mildenhall in 1971.

 

And so we have a sort of personal connection: in 1971 I lived not 11 miles from RAF Mildenhall, under the pattern, and no doubt saw that particular 135 among the many overhead my house and school.  Six degrees of separation?

Edited by MikeC

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

That's really cool.... I know the feeling albeit much smaller, I snagged the data plate from a 1947 Euclid dump truck my dad used to drive, MANY years ago, it is framed with a pic of him and the truck... congrats, Jennings... that's neat

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Hi Jennings,

 

Having spent most of my working life with both military and civil aircraft, the story you have relating to this plate makes it a very special find, and framing it sounds like a great idea.

 

Rgds Brent  

 

 

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Anyone interested in this very cool subject should immediately head over to HS and check this out:

 

http://clubhyper.com/reference/boeingkc135a553121jh_1.htm

 

Nice work Jennings!    I'd love to see some detail pictures of this ship in her Cobra Jaw days.  Those are some pretty unique lumps and bumps. 

 

55-3121J.jpg

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Create an account or sign in to comment

You need to be a member in order to leave a comment

Create an account

Sign up for a new account in our community. It's easy!

Register a new account

Sign in

Already have an account? Sign in here.

Sign In Now
Sign in to follow this  

  • Recently Browsing   0 members

    No registered users viewing this page.

×
×
  • Create New...