Some Offutt old-timers call the flight crews of the 45th Reconnaissance Squadron “combat hippies” because they often head off to far-off places at the drop of an airman’s cap.
The current crop of “hippies” heard a sobering story on Wednesday of the squadron’s darkest day, exactly 50 years earlier, from a veteran who lived it.
Retired Lt. Col. Kingdon Hawes, 81, described at length the events of June 5, 1969, when an RC-135 reconnaissance jet called Rivet Amber — packed with expensive electronics to monitor Soviet missile launches — disappeared while on a flight from Shemya Island in the Aleutians to Eielson Air Force Base, near Fairbanks, Alaska, where the squadron was then based.
All 19 airmen on board were presumed killed.
“We found nothing. Never did,” said Hawes, who lives in Omaha. “No remains on any beach, anywhere.”
It was the largest loss of life ever involving the RC-135s, which have been flying for the Air Force since the mid-1960s. The last fatal crash involving one was in 1985.
About 100 people attended Wednesday’s event, in an auditorium at the 45th’s Offutt Air Force Base headquarters near Bellevue. Nearly all were current or former 55th Wing airmen, many of whom fly RC-135 Cobra Ball aircraft that conduct the same type of mission as Rivet Amber. Hawes donated an oil painting depicting the final photograph of the plane taken a few days before it disappeared.
“This is a great ceremony, and it honors the Cobra Ball community,” said Joe Spivey, president of the 55th Wing Association, a group of former members of the Wing.
At the time of the Rivet Amber crash, Hawes was a 31-year-old captain on his first day filling in as chief of what was then called the 24th Strategic Reconnaissance Squadron while the commander attended his son’s wedding.
When the Eielson command post learned that air traffic controllers couldn’t raise the plane on the radio, Eielson’s air wing commander ordered him to bring a chaplain and break the news to the wives of the seven flight crew members.
When he finished that grim task, Hawes said, he went home and wept. Remembering that day brought tears to his eyes again.
“Here it is 50 years later, and I still haven’t gotten over it,” he said.
Hundreds of Eielson airmen criss-crossed the massive Bering Sea west of Alaska, searching fruitlessly for any sign of the aircraft and crew. After two weeks, they gave up.
The four-engine jet had hit severe turbulence the day before, which shredded part of the skin on the tail. After some debate, the plane was certified to fly back to Eielson.
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With no wreckage to examine, the last radio transmissions offer the only clues. They indicated that the plane was vibrating badly — a recurring problem on Rivet Amber — and that the crew had donned oxygen masks. Though voice contact was lost, air traffic controllers continued to hear the plane’s flight crew clicking its microphone button for another 45 minutes.
Hawes said reconnaissance pilots believe the plane’s vertical stabilizer, or tail, was weakened and fell off. Rivet Amber likely continued to fly without it for sometime before crashing into the sea.
Hawes left the 24th within two months, and retired from the Air Force in 1982. He has dedicated the past 20 years to researching and publicizing an accident that was shrouded in secrecy at the time.
“So long as I’m still standing vertical above this earth,” he told the group, “this story is going to continue.”