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Rivet Ball — Why Now?
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Rivet Ball

In the early hours of January 13th, 1969 I was forced to accept something that I had known for a while, but had pushed to the back of my mind: I was mortal and was going to die.

This was the first of several incidents when my chance of survival was a good deal less than 1 in 2. This wasn’t the scariest, but it was the first, and following on the heels of the terrible events of 1968, it had the biggest impact.

In the end the only “death” was an airplane, Rivet Ball, the Air Force’s only RC-135S. The military version of the Boeing 707, the fuselage broke in half, like an eggshell, on impact. A very talented pilot, John Achor, the aircraft commander, was responsible for that miracle.

Update: for those not familiar with “the terrible events of 1968”, Distributorcap NY has an outline of the main events on this fortieth anniversary.


1 Kryten42 { 01.13.08 at 12:44 am }

It’s curious when one is forced to confront one’s own mortality. Especially if one survives the event. You hear people being blaze about death and mortality, they will even say then know they are mortal etc. But they don’t really believe or understand what that means, unless they have been forced to confront it also. It really is life changing, and for me, and I suspect for you, we are better for it. 🙂

I heard from an engineer friend in the USA last year (2006 I mean) that a relative of his had miraculously survived a crash (and all 17 crew survived I believe) of that flying disaster, the C5 Galaxy (I think it happened near Dover Air Force Base). He once told me that a C5 needs several hours ground maintenance for every hour flying time, if it actually launches without something falling off.

When I hear about people surviving things like this and your close encounter, it’s difficult not to believe in God, or fate, or something! 🙂

I for one am glad you survived to tell the tale. 🙂

2 ellroon { 01.13.08 at 12:55 am }

I remember you talking about this earlier. Do you have flashbacks of the event? How many others were involved in the crash with you? Where were you when it crashed? (Country and placement in side the plane?)

3 distributorcap { 01.13.08 at 10:48 am }

whoa…..i too am glad you are here to tell this….. events like that truly are (forgive the cliche) life changing….

4 jams o donnell { 01.13.08 at 12:07 pm }

Good God Bryan the fates were smiling on you and your comrades that day. . I found a site by Kingdon Hawes. Major Achor must have been a magnificent pilot. What happened to Rivet Amber was terrible.

Btw what was a raven, Bryan?

5 Bryan { 01.13.08 at 4:11 pm }

There is a more complete description of the flight and a declassified version of some of what I was doing at my Shemya pages on my personal website.

You don’t forget it and you really remember whenever you’re flying in the winter and turn onto final approach.

A Raven is an electronics warfare officer, Jams. They do a lot of “interesting things”. “King” Hawes was part of the “Circus” I talk about in the Shemya pages. Major Achor used the throttles to steer the aircraft to the inland side of the landing light pylons. If we had hit a pylon we would have gone up like a torch. 50,000 pounds of kerosene and 20 liters of liquid oxygen will make a hell of a fire.

6 Michael { 01.13.08 at 6:56 pm }

By the way, Bryan, completely apart from your own fascinating history your writing in the Shemya pages is absolutely beautiful.

7 hipparchia { 01.13.08 at 7:15 pm }

i was just thinking the same as michael.

8 Bryan { 01.13.08 at 7:42 pm }

It’s easy to write what you know…after a few decades to sort through the dark parts.

9 Bryan { 01.13.08 at 8:53 pm }

Oh, Kryten, I grew quite fond of the C-5 when I was stationed at Rhein-Main. There they were – ailing, trying to recuperate while spending weeks away from home waiting for someone to send the right parts.

They were a bit of a running joke when they were first deployed because almost everything was a depot fix and all you could do is swap out black boxes until you found a combination that seemed to work. People would say within the hearing of the C-5 crews that the best way of telling a C-5 from a C-141at a distance was if it actually took off it was a 141. 😉

10 hipparchia { 01.13.08 at 8:54 pm }

it may be easy, but even people who write what they know don’t always succeed in taking the reader on the journey with them.

11 Bryan { 01.13.08 at 9:48 pm }

I think it is important to include the minor oddities, like the dog on Shemya. You need the color after you sketch the outline. Everyone can relate to these things, while most people have never been escorted by a Yak-28P at 20,000 feet or seen a missile re-enter the atmosphere from 40,000 feet.

12 Steve Bates { 01.14.08 at 10:08 am }

Very glad you are still among the living, Bryan. And yes, your Shemya article is very well written.

13 hipparchia { 01.15.08 at 12:40 am }

well, the dog sucked me right in, but i continued reading with some trepidation. given your familiarity with russian literature, i wondered if he was going to be a chekhov’s gun. then i got to your introduction of lu, and i knew that things were going to end badly.

i wish there were some way to apologize to all those who have had to return from somewhere when their friends didn’t make it out. you’d think that preventing the next war would be a proper atonement, but we’re not doing so hot on that. sorry.

on the other hand, i’m not sure when i’ll forgive you for one thing, 😈 the mental image i now have of you guys flying through the air escorted by one of these guys.

14 Bryan { 01.15.08 at 1:00 pm }

They give you training and tell you the truth about the risks, but it isn’t “real” until it happens.

Now you know why they have two engines.

15 Kryten42 { 01.15.08 at 7:01 pm }

They give you training and tell you the truth about the risks, but it isn’t “real” until it happens.

Now you know why they have two engines.

Correct! 🙂

And may I add, I enjoyed your story, and felt the pain. And I agree with the sentiments above. You have a gift, don’t minimize it! 😉

Thanks you. 🙂

BTW, you know as well as I do that the C-5 was a purely Political decision. The USAF didn’t even want them, but DOD and the Politicians didn’t want Lockheed going broke. And the Poli’s with a vested interest wanted all those jobs for their constituents the C5 provided. Although it was such a bitch of a project, they had to hire a lot of technical talent from BAC (which I believe is where the Lockheed-BAC links and corruption began). I still remember watching a demonstration flight, and a wheel fell off! Murtha related how he was surprised to witness a wheel fall off of a C-5 Galaxy during a demonstration. When he sought an explanation, Murtha said he was told, “That’s why we put 15 wheels on it.”

Yup! LOL

16 Bryan { 01.15.08 at 8:31 pm }

Almost every airframe purchased since the end of World War II had more to do with politics, specifically where something was built and who the Congressional delegation was, than military needs and requirements. When he was Speaker of the House, Newt Gingrich was requiring the Air Force to buy C-130s every year because they were built in his district. The V-22 Tiltrotor was pushed by Senator Carl Levin because parts were built in his state. Every piece of equipment that makes it to the military inventory is pushed by politicians in leadership positions, usually on the Armed Services committees of the House and Senate.