Country of origin
Dimensions and weight
Weight (maximum take off)
Engines and performance
4 ◊ CFM International F-108-CF-201 turbofan engines
4 x 96 kN
5 500 km
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
aircraft. Recently one of them flew missions against the Islamic State.
aircraft gathers electronic and signal intelligence worldwide. It
can operate at a theatre, or country level. This
has near real-time on scene intelligence collection, analysis and
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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.
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.
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.