By D.P. Heard, 55th Wing Public Affairs
/ Published March 19, 2021
An illustration commemorating the 40th anniversary of the crash of Flight 664. (U.S. Air Force graphic design by Josh Plueger)
Crash survivor and event speaker Joe Kettner. (Courtesy photo)
Dr. Kerry Crooks, left, and Homer Hall, survivors of the crash, pose for a photo. (Courtesy Photo)
Howard Cohen, a squadron member and colleague of the crash victims. (Courtesy photo)
Survivors of the crash pose for a photo while touring an RC-135S Cobra Ball at Offutt Air Force Base, Nebraska. (Courtesy photo)
The crash of Flight 664 on March 15, 1981 was a harsh reminder of the risks members of the Fightin’ Fifty-Fifth take daily. The 55th lost six members of their unit when an RC-135S Cobra Ball crashed upon landing in severe weather at Shemya Air Force Base, Alaska.
On the 40th anniversary of the crash, March 15, 2021, the 55th Wing paused to remember and honor the victims of the crash; Maj. William R. Bennett, Capt. Larry A. Mayfield, 1st Lt. Loren O. Ginter, Master Sgt. Steven L. Kish, Staff Sgt. Steven C. Balcer and Staff Sgt. Harry L. Parsons III.
Surviviors of the crash included Dr. Kerry Crooks, who was an Air Force Captain and the last person to exit the aircraft. He described how he managed to escape the burning wreckage.
“When the massive electronic-array equipment shifted in the crash to pin my leg, it took every bit of effort to get free, resulting in damage for which even my youth couldn’t compensate,” Crooks said. “Most of those injuries never healed properly, so my body nudges me daily with reminders of the events of March 15, 1981.”
Crook’s instructor, retired Major Howard Cohen, was at home when he received a phone call informing him that the plane had gone down.
“I remember receiving a phone call from the squadron on the morning of March 16,” Cohen said. “The message was to come down to the squadron immediately. The caller did not state why. The call was very unusual, and I immediately sensed that something bad had happened. Upon arriving at the squadron, we were told that Cobra Ball aircraft 61-2664 had crashed while attempting to land at Shemya AFB the previous night and that there had been fatalities.
“I felt like I got kicked in the stomach. I immediately started running through my mind the names of the people I knew were on the aircraft, and with each name, I would think, ‘No, it can’t be him.’
“People like Capt. Bruce Carson; when I arrived at Eielson, he was my sponsor, we were good friends, and even our wives and kids were very close. – ‘It couldn’t be Bruce,’ or Capt. Bill Maxwell; He was my next-door neighbor and I saw him almost every day – ‘It couldn’t be Bill,’ or Kerry Crooks; Kerry was a second lieutenant, also on his first assignment, and had just recently qualified in the aircraft. I had been his primary instructor since his arrival, and we had become good friends – ‘It couldn’t be Kerry,’ or 1st Lt. Loren Ginter, who was brand new to the squadron; I was his primary instructor also, and the only reason he was on the aircraft that night was because I had signed him off as ready for his qualification check ride. – ‘It couldn’t be Loren,’ or Capt. Larry Mayfield; one of the nicest people you could ever meet, or Maj. Bill Bennett, another exceptionally fine person, or Master Sgt. Steven Kish, who was with our crew the weekend before the accident when we took the plane down to the wash rack at Fairchild AFB, Washington.
“These were the thoughts running through my head in the minutes after hearing about the accident,” Cohen said. “Eventually, the names of the crew members were released, and everyone’s worst nightmares were confirmed. I know things were pretty solemn around the squadron for the remaining 4 or 5 weeks of my tour. The mission continued, and changes were made, but no one assigned to the 24th Strategic Reconnaissance Squadron that day will ever forget the tragedy of Cobra Ball aircraft 61-2664.”
Lt Col. Andrew J. Maus, Commander, 45th Reconnaissance Squadron, offered these inspiring words to honor the airmen of Flight 664.
“It was an honor for the 45 RS to host the memorial service for the surviving members of the Cobra Ball crash, their family members, and the former members of the units that flew these difficult missions out of Shemya,” Maus said. “The squadron proudly continues the Cobra Ball mission from the 24th SRS and will always remember and carry on the legacy of our former Cobra Ball Airmen.“