Boeing RC-135 : Reconnaissance aircraft

Boeing RC-135
Boeing RC-135

Militarymedia.net - The Boeing RC-135 reconnaissance aircraft was developed by Boeing in the early 60's from the C-135 Stratolifter. This is the main variant of the C-135. This reconnaissance aircraft was adopted by the US Air Force in 1962 as the RC-135. This is referred to by the Boeing company as the Model 739. Although the Boeing RC-135 has been in use for more than half a century, its operators plan to keep using it for several more decades. This aircraft remains one of the USAF's most important strategic reconnaissance assets. Britain, which is the only country outside the US to use the RC-135, plans to use the aircraft until 2045.

The US Air Force has used this aircraft since 1962 and has since been used in every of their military operations, starting from the Vietnam War. A total of 32 airframes of this type of aircraft were built. Currently 22 units are still in the US Air Force's inventory. These are the RC-135S, RC-135U, RC-135V, or RC-135W variants. All of these reconnaissance aircraft are assigned to Air Combat Command, and often operate from US bases or use various forward deployment sites around the world. The Royal Air Force operates a small number of these aircraft. Recently one of them went on a mission against ISIS.

These aircraft collect electronic and signal intelligence around the world. It can operate at the theater, or at the country level. This reconnaissance aircraft has the capability of gathering, analyzing and disseminating intelligence on the scene in real-time.

The RC-135 is operated by a crew of up to 27-32 members, depending on the mission. Among them 3 are pilots, 2 navigators, and the rest are various intelligence gathering specialists, systems operators, in-flight maintenance technicians and air linguists.

The RC-135 can be easily identified by the "thimble" nose radome and cheek fairing that protrudes from the front fuselage. This house mission equipment. There are also a number of antennas on the fuselage.

This reconnaissance aircraft is a derivative of the C-135 Stratolifter transport aircraft. So it's no wonder the RC-135 can carry a lot of payload. Its maximum takeoff weight is 146 metric tons, which makes it one of the largest aircraft.

The aircraft is powered by four F-108-CF-201 turbofan engines with a traction force of 95 kN each. The engines were manufactured by the French-American company CFM International, a joint venture of US-based General Electrics and French aircraft company Safran.

The Boeing RC-135 aircraft has been in use for over 50 years, so it's no surprise that there have been several accidents. In 1969, heavy snowfall caused an emergency landing at Shemya Air Force Base in Alaska. During the landing, the aircraft was severely damaged and was declared irreparable. Even so, many of its parts are used as replacement parts for other aircraft of the same model. That same year, an airplane named Rivet Amber, departing from the same base, crashed in the Pacific. It is the largest and heaviest RC-135 ever built. Two more RC-135s crashed in the 1980s, both due to bad weather conditions. It is an impressive fact that the RC-135 was never destroyed by enemy forces, even though it took part (and still is) in operations such as Desert Storm, Desert Shield, Northern Watch, Southern Watch, Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom. This record makes the Boeing RC-135 the model with the longest unfortunate presence in the US Air Force.

Since the early 1960s a total of 32 different variants were developed, the newest of which is still under development. Many of these aircraft have been modified and upgraded several times by various companies. All of this results in various designations, configurations, and program names.


The Boeing RC-135A is a real photo mapping airplane. Its mission was immediately taken over by satellite. RC-135A aircraft are converted into transport aircraft and used to transport staff. In the early 1980s, this was further converted into a tanker and designated as KC-135D.

RC-135B, a total of 10 of these aircraft were delivered. This however does not have mission equipment installed. This aircraft was never used operationally. When mission equipment was installed it was redesigned as the RC-135C.

RC-135C. A total of 10 aircraft were converted from the RC-135B and equipped with an electronic intelligence system (ELINT), as well as many cameras and other special equipment. This aircraft is used for strategic reconnaissance. The aircraft can be identified by the prominent cheek fairing on the front fuselage. When the RC-135C fleet was fully deployed, the USAF suspended its fleet of older RB-47H Stratojets reconnaissance aircraft. Later all of these 10 aircraft were further converted into the RC-135V Rivet Joint and RC-135U Combat Sent platforms and continued their service.

RC-135D Office Boy / Rivet Brass.  Three of these aircraft were delivered in 1962 and began operational missions in 1963. Their mission was to fly along the northern border of the Soviet Union. The RC-135D was also used in Southeast Asia, when the RC-135M was not available. In the late 1970s, the RC-135D aircraft were converted into KC-135R tankers.

RC-135E Lisa Ann / Rivet Amber. A single aircraft has been modified to this standard. It was equipped with a large phased array radar, which could track objects the size of a soccer ball at a distance of 480 km. Initially the project was known as the Lisa Ann and the aircraft operated from 1966 to 1969 and monitored Soviet ballistic missile tests in the re-entry phase. The only one this aircraft was lost in crash in 1969. It was the US Air Force's most expensive aircraft of its time.

RC-135M Rivet Card. It is a transient type with more limited ELINT capabilities than the RC-135C, but with additional communication intelligence (COMINT) capabilities. In other words, it could intercept communication between people. A total of 6 aircraft were converted from the C-135B transport. It was used during the Vietnam War. In the early 1980s, these aircraft were subsequently converted into RC-135W Rivet Joints and continued to be used.

RC-135S Rivet Ball / Nancy Rae / Wanda Belle / Rivet Ball. The Rivet Ball is Cobra Ball's predecessor program. The program was started in 1961, and the Rivet Ball project name was assigned in 1967. An airplane was changed to this standard. This single aircraft operates in conjunction with other RC-135 variants under the project names Nancy Rae and Wanda Belle. In 1969 the plane was destroyed during a landing accident.

The RC-135S Cobra Ball is a collection measurement and signature intelligence (MASINT) aircraft. It is designed to observe and track the flight of a ballistic missile and monitor its signals remotely. The aircraft is equipped with special electro-optical instruments. Two RC-135S aircraft were converted from the C-135B transport in 1969. These can be identified by the black engines and right wing. One aircraft was lost in 1981, but another was modified in 1983. A third aircraft was changed from the RC-135X in the late 1990s. So currently three of these planes are in service. There is another TC-135S trainer, which has been modified from the EC-135B. This trainer does not carry any mission equipment.

RC-135T Rivet Dandy. A single aircraft was modified to this configuration in 1971. In 1973 the SIGINT equipment was removed and the aircraft was used as a training aircraft. It was lost in 1985 when there was an accident.

RC-135U Combat Shipped. It was designed to gather technical intelligence from enemy radar transmitter systems. The data collected by aircraft of this type is used to develop new or existing radar warning receivers, radar jammers, decoys and anti-radiation missiles. This reconnaissance aircraft has a distinctive antenna arrangement on the chin of the fuselage, tail cone and wingtips. In the early 1970s three RC-135C aircraft were changed to the RC-135U standard. In 1978 one of the RC-135U aircraft was further changed to the RC-135V / W. Rivet Joint. However, the other two planes remain active.

The RC-135V Rivet Joint is currently the US Air Force's air signal intelligence (SIGINT) standard platform. It detects, identifies and geolocates a variety of signals. The information collected is forwarded in various formats to various consumers. The RC-135V aircraft is upgraded from the older RC-135C configuration.

The RC-135W Rivet Joint is another US Air Force standard airborne SIGINT platform. In terms of specialized equipment, it is similar to the previous RC-135V, but the RC-135W is an upgrade from the C-135B transport, or RC-135M configuration. Otherwise, the RC-135V and RC-135W variants are similar. There are also two RC-135W trainers which are not mission-equipped.

RC-135W Rivet Joint / Airseeker. The UK ordered a former US Air Force KC-135R aircraft to be converted to the standard RC-135W Rivet Joint. These three aircraft first flew in 1964. This project was known as the Airseeker. The first aircraft were delivered in 2013, the second in 2015, and the third is expected in 2017. These three aircraft will fulfill tasks previously performed by the Nimrod R1 and are planned to remain operational until 2045.

RC-135X Cobra Eye telemetry and long-range instrumentation aircraft. A single aircraft was changed to this standard from the C-135B during the mid or late 1980s. Its mission is to track back incoming intercontinental ballistic missile vehicles. In 1993 this only aircraft was converted into the RC-135S Cobra Ball.

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