Boeing RC-135

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Boeing RC-135
USAF Combat Sent.jpg
A US Air Force RC-135U "Combat Sent"
Type: Strategic scout
Design country:

United StatesUnited States United States



First flight:

April 28, 1965


September 1965

The Boeing RC-135 is a from US aircraft manufacturer Boeing -built military reconnaissance plane of the US Air Force (USAF) .

Technically, it is based on the Boeing C-135 transport aircraft , which was equipped with special equipment primarily for strategic electronic reconnaissance (ELINT) and telecommunications reconnaissance (COMINT). Some versions can be recognized by an enlarged bow radome ( hog nose ) for advanced radar technology and by “thick cheeks”, aerodynamic panels for sensors on both sides of the front fuselage. Except for the RC-135A, all versions could or can be refueled in the air. Since the late 1990s, some RC-135s have received the more modern and more powerful turbofan engines of the CFM International F108 type .

In the early 1960s, the USAF's Strategic Air Command (SAC) used the first RC-135. They partly replaced bombers that had been converted into reconnaissance vehicles. Boeing only rebuilt the RC-135A and -B, all other variants were created from modifications of existing C-135, KC-135 and RC-135. Some models were unique, all of them had highly specialized and expensive equipment. Four RC-135s, one RC-135E, two -S and one -T were lost in accidents, killing a total of 28 people.

In 2007 there were still 22 S, U, V and W RC-135s in service with the US Air Force. They are the 55th Strategic Reconnaissance Wing of the Air Combat Command assumed and at the Offutt Air Force Base in Nebraska home. From 2013 onwards, the Royal Air Force will receive three used US RC-135W aircraft to replace the Nimrod R1 .



In 1962, the Military Air Transport Service (MATS) ordered nine RC-135A. They were supposed to help create topographical maps of non-hostile areas and conduct surveys for the Department of Defense and other government agencies, replacing the older RB-50 in that role . As a result of multiple budget cuts, the program shrank to four machines by 1964. Boeing built them under the model number 739-700 and with the USAF serial numbers 63-8058 to -8061. At the same time, the last four copies of the entire C-135 series were delivered. The first flight of an RC-135A took place on April 28, 1965, in mid-September 1965 the first copy reached the 1370th Photo Mapping Wing at Turner Air Force Base in Georgia .

The installation of the special equipment took place under the program name Pacer Swan . This included a camera compartment instead of the front underfloor tank and various optics, measuring devices, computers and data recorders on the main deck. They belonged to the aerial imaging system AN / ASQ-92, which, together with other devices for analysis on the ground, formed the photogrammetry system AN / USQ-28 from Kollsman Instruments and cost 24 million US dollars in 1967 alone . An RC-135A could cover an area of ​​up to 104,000 km² per day. In addition to the cockpit team, the crew consisted of up to five other people for navigation and operation of the cameras and computers.

In the spring of 1970, the aircraft helped to determine the then controversial border between Argentina and Chile and in early 1971 measured snow depths in the north of the USA to forecast meltwater. Overall, however, the system suffered from technical problems and never reached full operational readiness. In addition, because of its involvement in the Vietnam War , the USAF wanted to spend less and less money on such projects with no direct military benefit. The survey missions of the RC-135A finally ended in 1971. The four aircraft initially served as transporters for the Strategic Air Command, before E-Systems had them converted into tanker aircraft for the Air Force in 1979. They were then given the designation KC-135D and have been part of the Air National Guard ever since .

RC-135B and -C

The RC-135B was the only newly built true reconnaissance version of the C-135 family. Boeing produced ten units under the model number 739-445B (USAF serial numbers 63-9792 and 64-14841 to -14849) and delivered them directly to the Glenn L. Martin Company between May 1964 and February 1965 . There they received their special equipment through the Big Team equipment program and then the new designation RC-135C. The RC-135C had the sensor panels on the sides of the front fuselage, so typical of many RC-135 versions, and an additional radome on the underside. The heart of the equipment was the semi-automatic AN / ASD-1 system for detecting, recording and evaluating signals from a wide range of the electromagnetic spectrum . Airplanes were also known as vacuum cleaners because of their ability to collect virtually all electronic signals over a large radius . Martin handed the first machine over to the 55th Strategic Reconnaissance Wing at Offutt Air Force Base on January 27, 1967.

In the spring of 1967 the RC-135C flew their first missions, replacing the older RB-47H . A typical mission started in Offutt and led across the Arctic Ocean to Mildenhall ( Great Britain ) or Kadena ( Japan ) and a few days later back to the home base. During the up to 30-hour flights, the scouts listened across the borders to China and the Soviet Union . Many of these strategic missions went under the name Burning Candy . In addition, there were deployments in the Vietnam War with the code name Combat Apple . The operating team for the technology consisted of at least three specialists for electronic reconnaissance and two technicians.

The Luftwaffe had three of the ten RC-135C converted to RC-135U from mid-1970, and E-Systems converted the remaining seven into RC-135V from late 1972 to early 1976.

RC-135D Rivet Brass

RC-135D was the name of three copies (60-0356, -0357 and -0362) that were originally intended to be built as KC-135A tanker aircraft, but were the first C-135A transporters to go to the Military Air Transport Service (MATS) in 1961. As early as 1962, Ling-Temco-Vought (LTV) converted them for SIGINT reconnaissance purposes. The aircraft were initially known under the name Office Boy ; they operated from Eielson Air Force Base ( Alaska ) and Shemya Air Force Base ( Aleutian Islands ) for cotton candy missions. It was not until 1965 that they were given the designation RC-135D after further modifications. In 1967 the SAC changed the aircraft s name to Rivet Brass and the operational order to Burning Candy . In Southeast Asia they supported the RC-135M in Combat Apple missions from the Japanese Kadena Air Base from 1969 .

The RC-135D had the enlarged nose and narrow, elongated panels that ran from the bow laterally to the wing root. The 60-0362 later received a radome about five meters long under the front fuselage. In 1975, the RC-135M and -V began to replace the D version, between 1976 and 1978 the three machines were converted into tanker aircraft and then used as the KC-135A. You have been flying in the Air Force as KC-135R since the mid-1990s.

RC-135E Rivet Amber

There was only a single copy of this version with the serial number 62-4137. It began its service time in July 1962 with MATS as a C-135B Stratolifter transport aircraft . From autumn 1963 to spring 1966, LTV converted it into the RC-135E for the Strategic Air Command. It was named Lisa Ann and was deployed from Shemya Air Force Base from October 1966. At the beginning of 1967 the aircraft name changed to Rivet Amber . Together with RC-135S, she observed Soviet missile tests as part of Burning Star missions.

For this purpose, the RC-135E had a radar with a phased array antenna and an output of 7.5 megawatts. The resolution was one square meter at a distance of 1852 kilometers. The approximately three by six meter antenna matrix was integrated with its bracket on the starboard side into the structure of the fore fuselage and connected to the radar system via a waveguide . LTV replaced the aluminum skin in the area of ​​the antenna with electromagnetically neutral glass fiber reinforced plastic . All of the radar equipment weighed over 16 tons and cost more than $ 35 million. A telescope with a camera coupled with the radar recorded the ballistic objects visually. Since the four turbofan engines Pratt & Whitney TF33 could not provide enough energy for the material, the RC-135E possessed under the left inner support surface a modified gas turbine of the type Lycoming T55 which a electric generator drive. In a similar housing on the right wing, a heat exchanger took care of the dissipation of the heat generated by the devices.

On June 5, 1969, the crew of the RC-135E reported strong vibrations on the flight from Shemya to Eielson AFB over the Bering Sea , after which contact was broken. Neither the plane nor the 19-man crew have been found so far.

RC-135M Rivet Card

In 1966/67, E-Systems converted six obsolete C-135Bs for reconnaissance purposes. They were given the designation RC-135M Rivet Card and were initially used at the Japanese Yokota Air Base from May 1967 . In early 1968, the SAC moved them to Kadena Air Base , from where they carried the brunt of the Combat Apple missions. This strategic reconnaissance in the Southeast Asian war zone included listening to enemy radio communications and identifying radar positions. The M models had the enlarged nose and small teardrop-shaped panels at the rear. After the end of the Vietnam War, the Air Force had it gradually converted to RC-135W between 1978 and 1984.

RC-135S Cobra Ball

Three RC-135S Cobra Ball and a TC-135S trainer (rear) in Offutt in 2001

The main task of this version was the observation of Soviet tests of ICBMs under the name Burning Star . The first RC-135S with the USAF serial number 59-1491 emerged in 1963 from the test aircraft JKC-135A Nancy Rae . Their equipment was constantly expanded, especially for optical and photographic reconnaissance. From 1964, the Strategic Air Command (SAC) stationed her at Eielson AFB in Alaska, then her nickname changed to Wanda Belle and she received a large nose radome. Since 1967 it has been called the Rivet Ball . On January 13, 1969, the reconnaissance plane had an accident in a landing at Shemya AFB. As a replacement, the Air Force procured two former C-135Bs (61-2663 and 61-2664), which were ready for use as RC-135S Cobra Ball in the summer of 1970 . When the 61-2664 crashed on March 15, 1981 at Shemya AFB , 61-2662 moved up at the end of 1983. The USAF decided in 1995 to upgrade the stored RC-135X to the S version as well.

The RC-135S has - depending on the expansion stage - one to ten windows for optical devices, several dipole antennas and panels for sensors, mainly on the starboard side. In order not to falsify the measurement results through reflections, the top of the wing and the engine nacelles are painted matt black on the starboard side. In addition to the four-person cockpit crew, the crew usually consists of twelve specialists and technicians.

The Burning Star reconnaissance flights were carried out in conjunction with land- and sea-based radar systems in Alaska. Whenever there were indications of a rocket launch, one of the always alert Cobra Balls rose up in Shemya and tried to observe the missile as it re-entered the earth's atmosphere and when it hit the Kamchatka Peninsula. After the end of the Cold War , the RC-135S were used in the Second Gulf War in 1991 , this time for the reconnaissance of Iraqi medium-range missiles. Today there are still three RC-135S in service, plus a TC-135S since 1985 for training purposes and logistical support.


This variant was a one-off (55-3121) and emerged in May 1971 from the KC-135T reconnaissance aircraft, which was also unique at the time. Ling-Temco-Vought installed nine telecommunications reconnaissance workstations on board; she already had an enlarged nose and external antennae. It was used from Offutt as the RC-135T Rivet Dandy until mid-1973 , then the Air Force had the electronics removed and the machine converted as a trainer for RC-135 crews. Most of the panels were initially retained. After a few intermediate stops, the SAC moved the RC-135T to Alaska to Eielson AFB in late 1979. In 1981 Boeing replaced the J57 turbo jets with more powerful TF33 turbofan engines. The RC-135T crashed on February 25, 1985 during a training approach near Valdez (Alaska) . The wreck was only found five months later, the three crew members were killed.

RC-135U Combat Sent

From mid-1970 to late 1971, General Dynamics converted three RC-135Cs to RC-135U Combat Sent for special electronic reconnaissance through the Big Safari program . They belong to the externally most conspicuous variants of the RC-135 series. The RC-135U do not have the big nose, but a forward-facing radome under the bow, another a few meters behind, large panels on the bow sides, several dipole antennas, extended wing ends with antennas and a rear fairing with sensors. With interferometers , radiometers and spectrometers , signals from radar stations and other sources can be detected and examined.

Combat Sent 63-9792 had the Strategic Air Command converted into an RC-135V in 1976, the other two (64-14847 and -14849) are now in service with the 55th Strategic Reconnaissance Wing at Offutt AFB.

RC-135V and -W Rivet Joint

USAF Boeing RC-135V Rivet Joint
Interior of the RC-135V / W Rivet Joint

Both versions are largely identical in their equipment and use, but come from different initial versions and conversion phases. Eight RC-135Vs were built between December 1972 and July 1977 from seven RC-135Cs and one RC-135U, so they are all RC-135Bs originally. Nine RC-135W, on the other hand, emerged from three C-135B and six RC-135M between September 1978 and 2005, which also started as C-135B. The V models initially had engines of the type TF33-P-9 without thrust reverser , the W models TF33-P-5 with thrust reverser. Since the late 1990s, the RC-135V / W have gradually received the more modern F108 turbofans. Unlike the KC-135, this did not change its name. All machines called Rivet Joints have the enlarged nose and sensor panels in front, plus a more or less large number of leaf and mushroom-shaped antennas on the underside of the fuselage. Up to 27 specialists work inside for all types of electronic and telecommunications intelligence.

In terms of technology and application profile, the RC-135V / W succeeded the RC-135C. They also carried out “vacuum cleaner” flights during the Cold War, now under the name “Burning Wind”, which mainly ran along the Soviet border. In addition, the rivet joints have been increasingly used worldwide since the mid-1980s. For example, in 1985 in the pursuit of the Achille Lauro kidnappers or in 1989 in the US invasion of Panama (Operation Just Cause ). Since August 1990, some of the scouts have been deployed continuously in the Middle East . On March 12, 2008, with the RC-135W 62-4132, a copy of the C-135 series reached the 50,000 flight hour mark for the first time.

In September 2007 the Air Force had 13 rivet joints . In addition, there are two TC-135W (62-4129 since 1987 and 61-4127 since 2005) as training aircraft and since 2000 an NC-135W (61-2666) of the Air Force Materiel Command as a test aircraft for new equipment.

RC-135W Airseeker at the RAF

As a replacement for the Nimrod R1 from the 1970s , the last Labor government under Gordon Brown decided to procure three RC-135Ws, which will be named Airseeker by the Royal Air Force . David Cameron's new coalition government confirmed this in its white paper, which was published in October 2010. Accordingly, three used USAF KC-135R machines will be brought up to the rivet joint standard. You will get a “glass” cockpit and the USAF air refueling system will be replaced by the RAF system . ZZ664 to ZZ666 are intended as RAF serial numbers. The first RAF soldiers began their retraining at Offut AFB in January 2011 and will later also be deployed on board US aircraft. The first aircraft arrived at RAF Waddington in mid-November 2013 ; the other two machines will follow by 2017. The RAF officially put the aircraft into service in 2014 and at the beginning of 2018 the RAF declared the aircraft to be fully operational.

RC-135X Cobra Eye

The only RC-135X Cobra Eye (62-4128) served from 1989 to 1993 as an observation platform for the trajectory of ICBMs as part of the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI). The US Air Force and Army jointly financed the conversion of an EC-135B, which E-Systems began in July 1983. Due to technical problems, it was not delivered as planned in spring 1986, but only in July 1989. The first regular deployment took place on August 15, 1989 from Shemya AFB and was a Soviet missile test on Kamchatka. The air force and army also regularly used the Cobra Eye for their own weapon tests. After the SDI program had increasingly lost in importance, the RC-135X was mothballed in February 1993 and its electronics expanded. In 1995 the USAF had it converted into the third RC-135S Cobra Ball .

The RC-135X already had the large nose from an earlier upgrade, but no further panels on the fuselage. The measuring devices were installed in the front of the main deck: telescopes and cameras with infrared sensors , radiometers and spectrometers for recording and analyzing the missiles observed. A sliding door on the starboard side of the fore hull exposed the optics during the missions and otherwise protected it from external influences. As with the RC-135S, the matt black paint on the right wing prevented irritating reflections.

Technical specifications

RC-135V / W Rivet Joint with F108 engines
Parameter Data of the RC-135V
length 41.1 m
span 39.9 m
height 12.8 m
Wing area 226 m²
drive Four CFM International F108-CF-201 with 96 kN thrust each
Top speed 900 km / h
Normal range 6,500 km
Summit height 13,400 m
Empty mass 44,700 kg
Max. Takeoff weight 134,000 kg
crew 5 + 22


  • Don Logan: The Boeing C-135 Series. Atglen, Pennsylvania, 1998. ISBN 0-7643-0286-8 .
  • Robert S. Hopkins: Boeing KC-135 Stratotanker. More than just a tanker. Earl Shilton, 1997. ISBN 1-85780-069-9 .

Web links

Commons : Boeing RC-135  - collection of pictures, videos and audio files

Individual evidence

  1. ^ Robert F. Dorr: Legacy Airframes, Diverse Missions, New Challenges , in AIR International June 2011, p. 68
  2. ^ Dominic Perry: First RAF Rivet Joint aircraft arrives in UK . In: November 12, 2013, accessed on November 13, 2013: “Ahead of its entry into service next year, the UK Royal Air Force has received the first of three Boeing RC-135 Rivet Joint signals intelligence (SIGINT) aircraft acquired under the Airseeker program . "
  3. RAF RC-135W Rivet Joint capability declared fully operational. In: RAF News. Royal Air Force , February 6, 2018, accessed December 1, 2019 (English, German: RAF Airseeker fully operational).