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Boeing RC-135

Reconnaissance aircraft

RC-135

The RC-135 is among the most important USAF's strategic reconnaissance assets

 
 
Country of origin USA
Entered service 1962
Crew 27-32 men
Dimensions and weight
Length 41.53 m
Wing span 39.88 m
Height 12.7 m
Weight (empty) 79 t
Weight (maximum take off) 146 t
Engines and performance
Engines 4 ◊ CFM International F-108-CF-201 turbofan engines
Traction 4 x 96 kN
Maximum speed 933 km/h
Service ceiling 15.2 km
Range 5 500 km

 

   The RC-135 reconnaissance aircraft was developed by Boeing in the early 60ís from C-135 Stratolifter. It is a major variant of the C-135. This reconnaissance aircraft was adopted by the US Air Force in 1962 as the RC-135. It is referred by the Boeing company as the Model 739. Although the Boeing RC-135 has been in the service for over half a century, its operators plan to keep it employed for a few decades more. This aircraft remains among the USAF's most important strategic reconnaissance assets. The United Kingdom, which is the only country outside the US that uses the RC-135, plans to use these aircraft until 2045.

   The US Air Force has been using this aircraft since 1962 and since, it was 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 inventory. These are either RC-135S, RC-135U, RC-135V, or RC-135W variant. All of these reconnaissance aircraft are assigned to Air Combat Command, and often operate from US bases or using various forward deployment locations worldwide. The Royal Air Force operates a small number of these aircraft. Recently one of them flew missions against the Islamic State.

   This aircraft gathers electronic and signal intelligence worldwide. It can operate at a theatre, or  country level. This reconnaissance plane has near real-time on scene intelligence collection, analysis and dissemination capabilities.

   The RC-135 is operated by a total crew of up to 27-32 members, depending on its mission. Of which 3 are pilots, 2 navigators, and the rest are various intelligence gathering specialists, system operators, in-flight maintenance technicians and airborne linguists.

   The RC-135 can be easily identified by its "thimble" nose radome and bulged cheek fairing on the forward fuselage. These house mission equipment. Also there are a number of antennas on the fuselage.

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

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

   The Boeing RC-135 aircraft has been used for more than 50 years, so it's no surprise a few accidents happened. In 1969, a heavy snowfall caused emergency landing at the Shemya Air Force Base in Alaska. During the landing, the aircraft suffered massive damage and was declared non-reparable. Still, many of its parts were used as replacement parts for other aircraft of the same model. During the same year, an aircraft named Rivet Amber, which departed from the same base, crashed in the Pacific. This was the biggest and heaviest RC-135 ever built. Two more RC-135 aircraft crashed in the 1980ís, both due to poor weather conditions. It is an impressive fact that RC-135s were never destroyed by the enemy force, even though these aircraft took part (and still does) in operations like 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 presence without losses in the US Air Force.

   Since the early 1960s a total of 32 different variants were developed, the latest one being still in the development. Many of these aircraft have been modified and upgraded several times by various companies. All of this resulted in a variety of designations, configurations and program names.

 

Variants

 

   RC-135A was an original photo mapping aircraft. Its mission was soon taken over by satellites. The RC-135A aircraft were converted to transport aircraft and were used to transport staff. In the early 1980s these were further converted to tankers and designated as KC-135Ds.

   RC-135B, a total of 10 of these aircraft were delivered. However these had no mission equipment installed. These aircraft were never used operationally. When the mission equipment was installed, these were redesignated as the RC-135C.

   RC-135C. A total of 10 aircraft were converted from the RC-135Bs and equipped with electronic intelligence (ELINT) system, as well as numerous cameras and other specialized equipment. These aircraft were used for strategic reconnaissance. These aircraft could be identified by bulged cheek fairing on the forward fuselage. When the fleet of RC-135C aircraft was fully deployed, the USAF retired its fleet of older RB-47H Stratojets reconnaissance aircraft. Later all of these 10 aircraft were further converted into RC-135V Rivet Joint and RC-135U Combat Sent platforms and continue 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 aircraft were also used in Southeast Asia, when the RC-135M were unavailable. In the late 1970s the RC-135D aircraft were converted in KC-135R tankers.

   RC-135E Lisa Ann / Rivet Amber. A single aircraft was modified to this standard. It was fitted with a large phased-array radar, that could track an object the size of a football ball at a  range of 480 km. Originally the project was known as Lisa Ann and the aircraft operated from 1966 to 1969 and monitored Soviet ballistic missile tests in the reentry phase. This sole aircraft was lost during accident in 1969. It was the most expensive US Air Force aircraft for its time.

   RC-135M Rivet Card. It was an interim type with more limited ELINT capability than the RC-135C, but with additional communication intelligence (COMINT) capability. In other words it could intercept communications between people. A total of 6 aircraft were converted from the C-135B transports. These were used during the Vietnam War. By the early 1980s these aircraft were further converted into RC-135W Rivet Joints and continue to serve.

   RC-135S  Rivet Ball / Nancy Rae / Wanda Belle / Rivet Ball. The Rivet Ball was the predecessor program to Cobra Ball. This program was initiated in 1961, and the Rivet Ball project name was assigned in 1967. A single aircraft was converted to this standard. This sole aircraft operated along with the other RC-135 variants under the Nancy Rae and Wanda Belle project names. In 1969 the aircraft was destroyed during a landing accident.

   RC-135S Cobra Ball is a measurement and signature intelligence (MASINT) collection aircraft. It was designed to observe and track ballistic missile flights and monitor their signals at long range. This aircraft was fitted with special electro-optical instruments. Two RC-135S aircraft were converted from C-135B transports in 1969. These can be identified by a black engines and right wing. One aircraft was lost in 1981, however another was converted in 1983. The third aircraft was converted from the RC-135X in the late 1990s. So currently three of these aircraft are in service. There is one more TC-135S training aircraft, that was modified from the EC-135B. This trainer does not carry any mission equipment.

   RC-135T Rivet Dandy. A sole aircraft was modified to this configuration in 1971. In 1973 its SIGINT equipment was removed and the aircraft was used as a trainer. It was lost in 1985 during an accident.

   RC-135U Combat Sent. It was designed to collect technical intelligence from adversary radar emitter systems. Data collected by this type of aircraft was used to develop new or upgrade existing radar warning receivers, radar jammers, decoys, and anti-radiation missiles. This reconnaissance aircraft has distinctive antennae arrayse on the fuselage chin, tailcone and wing tips. In the early 1970s three RC-135C aircraft were converted to the RC-135U standard. In 1978 one of the RC-135U aircraft was further converted into RC-135V/W Rivet Joint. However the other two aircraft remain in active service.

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

   RC-135W Rivet Joint is another standard US Air Force airborne SIGINT platform. In terms of specialized equipment it is similar to the previous RC-135V, but the RC-135W were upgraded from C-135B transports, or RC-135M configuration. Otherwise the RC-135V and RC-135W variants are similar. Also there are two RC-135W trainer aircraft, that have got no mission equipment.

   RC-135W Rivet Joint / Airseeker. The United Kingdom ordered former US Air Force KC-135R  aircraft for conversion to RC-135W Rivet Joint standard. All of these three aircraft first flew in 1964. The project is known as the Airseeker. The first aircraft was delivered in 2013, the second in 2015, and the third is expected in 2017. These three aircraft will fullfil the tasks previously undertaken by the Nimrod R1 and are planned to remain in service until 2045.

   RC-135X Cobra Eye telemetry and missile range instrumentation aircraft. A single aircraft was converted to this standard from a C-135B during the mid- or late 1980s. Its mission was to track  reentry vehicles of intercontinental ballistic missiles. In 1993 this sole aircraft was converted into the RC-135S Cobra Ball.

 

 
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