On March 16, 1981, a U.S. Air Force RC-135 Cobra Ball II (#61-2664) was lost after returning from a reconnaissance mission off the Soviet Kamchatka peninsula.

The aircraft departed Eielson for Shemya with 24 souls onboard. While attempting to land, aircraft encountered a rapid decline in weather resulted in a crash landing. Six men lost their lives and several Medals were awarded for bravery.

03.16.1981 The fate of RC-135 Cobra Ball IIb
This map shows the airport of departure and the intended destination of the flight. The line between the airports does not display the exact flight path.  Distance from Fairbanks-Eielson AFB, AK to Shemya AFB, AK as the crow flies is 1580 miles.

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 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 crew mates found themselves trapped in the burning wreckage. Some of them wouldn’t get out. Remarkably, 18 survived.

03.16.1981 The fate of RC-135 Cobra Ball IIc
A memorial to the six crew members of Cobra Ball 61-2664 who lost their lives in March 1981 when their aircraft crashed upon landing at, is located outside the 45th Reconnaissance Squadron headquarters building in Nebraska. A memorial service was held in March 2011 on the 30th anniversary of the incident. (Photo courtesy of King Hawes)

The RC135S Cobra Ball is a rapidly deployable aircraft, which flies Joint Chiefs of Staff-directed missions of national priority to collect optical and electronic data on ballistic targets. This data is critical to arms treaty compliance verification, and development of U.S. strategic defense and theater missile defense concepts.

The RC-135S, equipped with a sophisticated array of optical and electronic sensors, recording media, and communications equipment, is a national asset uniquely suited to provide America’s leaders and defense community with vital information that cannot be obtained by any other source.

Crew composition includes a minimum of two pilots, one navigator, three electronic warfare officers, two airborne systems engineers, and two or more airborne mission specialists.

The current RC-135S aircraft trace their lineage to C-135 aircraft originally modified in 1961 and operated in 24-hour alert status out of Shemya AFB, Alaska. In 1994, all RC-135S aircraft and operations were transferred to the 55th Wing at Offutt AFB in Omaha, Nebraska. This action, along with many others, helped peacefully close another chapter in the history of the Cold War. Initially employed by Strategic Air Command to satisfy nationally tasked intelligence collection requirements, the RC-135S has also participated in Operations Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom.

All Cobra Ball airframe and mission systems modifications are overseen by L-3 Communications, under the oversight of Air Force Materiel Command.

There are three RC-135S aircraft in the Air Force inventory all assigned to Air Combat Command and permanently based at Offutt Air Force Base, Neb.. The Cobra Ball is operated by the 55th Wing, and manned with aircrews from the 45th Reconnaissance Squadron, and the 97th Intelligence Squadron, using various forward deployment locations worldwide.

Source: af.mil