A Tale of Two Airplanes
August 7, 2008 11:35 AM   Subscribe

"Once Upon A Time... there were two very special airplanes that lived.... far.... far.... away on a tiny island in the Bering Sea. One was named Rivet Ball and the other was named Rivet Amber. Very few people knew anything about these two planes or the men that flew them. Even family members knew very little. That's because their mission was... TOP SECRET." (some photos and language within are NSFW)

[via the wonderful PointNiner]
posted by kurmbox (18 comments total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
This is really really interesting. Thanks!
posted by blahblahblah at 11:55 AM on August 7, 2008

posted by GuyZero at 11:58 AM on August 7, 2008

Very cool... thanks Kurm!
posted by BobFrapples at 12:44 PM on August 7, 2008

Here's the island, so you can see that perilous airstrip... You can zoom in just about close enough to eyeball the girls behind the trees that the link refers to.
posted by kaibutsu at 1:29 PM on August 7, 2008

So very very cool...
posted by schyler523 at 1:34 PM on August 7, 2008

Way back when I was in the ASA, there always used to be the (only partially) joke-y threat that if you screwed up, you were going to end up "counting trees on Shemya." Fortunately, I never screwed up bad enough to find out.
posted by pjern at 1:59 PM on August 7, 2008

This was a very interesting read. Thanks for the post!
posted by oneirodynia at 2:13 PM on August 7, 2008

When you get debriefed from top-secret operations like this, you typically sign a piece of paper that you're not supposed to talk about what you did. How exactly can they set up a website like this recalling their experiences? Talking about exotic experiences seems to be normal as SR-71 vets, Vietnam special ops people (like this), etc get older but I'm not clear on how they escape the government coming after them years later.
posted by tinkertown at 3:03 PM on August 7, 2008

Best of the Web! Thanks.
posted by RussHy at 3:33 PM on August 7, 2008

wow, this is really great stuff. thanks for posting it!
posted by sergeant sandwich at 9:36 PM on August 7, 2008

awesome story. i was also amazed to learn about this behemoth (from page 11 of the first link).
posted by bilgepump at 11:07 PM on August 7, 2008

you typically sign a piece of paper that you're not supposed to talk about what you did. How exactly can they set up a website like this recalling their experiences?

These are 1960s secrets. Technologically, there are tribes in the Amazon with better stuff now. Strategically, everything has changed. Vast archives of secret documents have been opened. The major players are all dead or retired. The project probably has been declassified. They might still run their stuff past someone just to be sure they aren't accidentally revealing that Putin's elderly masseuse must be a sleeper agent, but there can't be much practical reason for it.
posted by pracowity at 11:44 PM on August 7, 2008

tinkertown - the SOS/SOG missions flown from NKP along with most other MACV SOG missions were declassified in the early 90's, a lot of ex-5th SFG(A) guys got a lot of (well-deserved and rather late) medals around that time as well.
posted by longbaugh at 3:44 AM on August 8, 2008

Rivet Ball and Rivet Amber are not two planes, but two configurations of the same plane model, the Boeing RC-135. There were more than one of each of these configurations, and some of them still are classified at various levels. The names are code words used to describe the types of intelligence collection equipment housed within. I'm pretty familiar with Rivet Joint, both from training at Fort Huachuca as a young Lieutenant and from sending the collection requests for particular regions (and parsing through the returned data for analysis). The RC-135 is versatile and useful, but there's not nearly enough of them in the air to support the voracious information appetite of us Intel Nerds...
posted by mystyk at 5:04 AM on August 8, 2008

Fascinating story; great post! Of particular interest was the fact the Rivet Amber crashed in the Bering Sea and was never recovered; I wonder if it would be possible to fin her now; after all a plane is a lot bigger than Gus Grissom's capsule. I also wonder if it was recovered but that was kept quiet; given the nature of the equipment on board I would think both the Russians and the Air Force would be pretty motivated to look for it. Perhaps the Glomar Explorer made a little side trip up there?
posted by TedW at 5:09 AM on August 8, 2008

mystyk, the wikipedia page you link to points out that there was only ever exactly one Rivet Amber, and only ever exactly one Rivet Ball.

Or at least, only one Rivet Amber and only one Rivet Ball were ever made public. If you know otherwise, you should probably find out what's been declassified before saying any more.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 7:02 AM on August 8, 2008

Fair enough. It is quite possibly correct that Rivet Amber was genuinely one-of-a-kind, as it was fielded while still considered a prototype. Rivet Ball, however, did have more than one built, but even I can't confirm for my own curiosity if any others ever took off. Several aircraft in the RC-135 lines have been re-tasked, so it's likely that they were incorporated into Cobra Ball or one of the other programs.
posted by mystyk at 8:26 AM on August 8, 2008

Fort Huachuca! ZOMG ... flashbacks...

mystyk ...did you ever cross paths w/ Gen. Bill Latta? Just curious ...
posted by aldus_manutius at 8:38 AM on August 8, 2008

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