Forever connected: The RC-135s engrained history at Eielson AFB

  • Published
  • By Senior Airman Keith Holcomb
  • 354th Fighter Wing Public Affairs

On June 5, 1969, the Rivet Amber, a unique RC-135 built as a reconnaissance aircraft went down over the Bering Sea. Nineteen Airmen perished, but their legacy lives on at Eielson Air Force Base, Alaska. The aircrew and the aircraft have not been recovered to this day.


At the time of the incident, the Rivet Amber was the most expensive aircraft in the U.S. Air Force inventory and was outfitted with equipment so advanced it could track a soccer ball from 300 nautical miles.


Retired Lt. Col. Kingdon Hawes, the acting squadron commander during the incident and a close friend of many in the RC-135 community, has continued to tell the story of the Airmen lost, their mission, and their contributions to the world from thousands of feet in the air.


Hawes was a major select filling in as the acting squadron commander, and on his first day on the job he heard the devastating news; The Rivet Amber had crashed. 


It was a tragedy that forever connected Hawes to the Rivet Amber. Today, more than 50 years after the crash, Hawes’s involvement with the Airmen’s families remains  constant and steady.


The legacy and heritage of the Rivet Amber is intricately tied to the 354th Fighter Wing whose headquarters building, Amber Hall, was named in honor of the bravery and sacrifice of the Rivet Amber. 


U.S. Air Force Maj. Glenn C. W. Roberts, the RC-135S Cobra Ball detachment commander, is a close friend of Hawes and coincidentally leading missions out of Eielson AFB over the same waters the Rivet Amber flew over half a century ago.


“[Lt. Col. Hawes] has continued keeping their legacies alive and he’s a great friend of mine,” Roberts said. “It’s important to keep the legacy of this mission at the forefront of current aircrews minds, we have to remember the reasons why we are here and why we do what we do.”


Since the 1960s,  RC-135 reconnaissance missions have patrolled the skies, keeping a watchful eye on America’s adversaries and keeping the country safe. 


With this unique history and relationship between the RC-135S Cobra Ball and the 354th FW,  reconnaissance crews opened their aircraft doors to Eielson Airmen  


“It’s important to show this aircraft off to everyone helping us in these extreme temperatures, including the security forces Airmen, to thank them for keeping our aircraft and a mission of this caliber safe and running effectively,” Roberts said.


Airman 1st Class Michael Flores, a 354th Security Forces Squadron patrolman,   was among those invited to tour the RC-135S to learn more about the mission and capabilities they were protecting outside of the normal fighter and refueling platforms Eielson AFB is known for.


“Actually seeing the mission this aircraft runs, it gives perspective to why we pull security day in and day out and gives you a higher sense of purpose,” said Flores.


Today, the Cobra Ball mission forges on and through the memory of the Rivet Amber will be forever tied to the history, heritage and legacy of the 354th Fighter Wing.