Boeing RC-135

The Boeing RC-135 is a United States Air Force reconnaissance aircraft used to support theater and national level consumers with near real-time on-scene intelligence collection, analysis and dissemination capabilities.


The aircraft is an extensively modified C-135 with on-board sensors which enable the crew to detect, identify and geolocate signals throughout the electromagnetic spectrum. The crew can then forward information in a variety of formats to a wide range of consumers via the onboard secure communications suite.

In 2005, the RC-135 fleet completed a series of significant airframe, navigational and power-plant upgrades which include re-engining from the Pratt & Whitney TF-33 to the CFM International CFM-56 (F-108) engines used on the KC-135R and T Stratotanker and upgrade of the flight deck instrumentation and navigational systems to the AMP standard. The AMP standard includes conversion from analog readouts to a digital "glass cockpit" configuration.

The current RC-135 fleet is the latest iteration of modifications to this pool of aircraft going back to the early 1960s. Initially employed by Strategic Air Command for reconnaissance, the RC-135 fleet has also participated in every armed conflict involving U.S. assets during its tenure. RC-135s supported operations in Vietnam, the Mediterranean for Operation El Dorado Canyon, Grenada for Operation Urgent Fury, Panama for Operation Just Cause, the Balkans for Operations Deliberate Force and Allied Force, and Southwest Asia for Operations Desert Shield, Desert Storm, Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom. RC-135s have maintained a constant presence in Southwest Asia since the early 1990s.

All RC-135s are assigned to Air Combat Command. The RC-135 fleet is permanently based at Offutt Air Force Base, Nebraska and operated by the 55th Wing, using forward operating locations worldwide.

The British Ministry of Defence has applied to the United States Government to purchase 3 RC-135V/W for the Royal Air Force, these aircraft would be replacements for the Nimrod R1 aircraft which are nearing the end of their operational life.

Aircraft versions and associated missions


The RC-135A was a photo mapping platform utilized briefly by the Air Photographic & Charting Service. The mission was soon taken over by satellites, and the RC-135As were de-modified and used as staff transports. Due to delays in fitting their original equipment, the RC-135As were the last of the entire C-135 series delivered to the USAF.


The standard as-delivered version of the RC-135. The RC-135B was never used operationally, as it had no mission equipment installed by Boeing. The entire RC-135B production run was delivered directly to Martin Aircraft in Baltimore, Maryland for modification and installation of mission equipment. Upon completion, the RC-135Bs were designated RC-135C

RC-135C Big Team

Modified RC-135B aircraft used for strategic reconnaissance duties, and equipped with the AN/ASD-1 reconnaissance system. The aircraft were fitted with 'cheek' pods containing an ELINT emitter locating system (not Side Looking Airborne Radar - SLAR, as often quoted), as well as numerous other antennae.

RC-135D Rivet Brass

The RC-135Ds, then known as KC-135A-II's were the first reconnaissance configured C-135's, and were delivered to Eielson Air Force Base, Alaska in 1962 as part of the Office Boy Project. Serial numbers were 60-356, 60-357, and 60-362. The aircraft began operational missions in 1963. These three aircraft were originally produced as KC-135As, but delivered without refueling booms, known as "falsie C-135As" pending the delivery of the first actual C-135A cargo aircraft in 1961. The primary Rivet Brass mission flew along the northern border of the Soviet Union, often as a shuttle mission between Eielson and RAF Upper Heyford, Oxfordshire, and later RAF Mildenhall, Suffolk, UK. At the completion of the program, the aircraft were converted into tankers, and are currently in the fleet as KC-135Rs.

RC-135E Rivet Amber

Originally known as the C-135B-II, project name Lisa Ann, the RC-135E Rivet Amber was a one-of-a-kind aircraft equipped with a large Hughes phased-array radar system. Originally delivered as a C-135B, 62-4137 was deployed from Shemya Air Force Station, Alaska, and operated together with the RC-135S Cobra Ball aircraft (see below). The radar system alone weighed over 35,000 pounds and cost over USD$35 million (1960 dollars), making Rivet Amber both the heaviest C-135-derivative aircraft flying and the most expensive Air Force aircraft for its time. The radiation generated by the radar was sufficient to be a health hazard to the crew, and both ends of the radar compartment were shielded by thick lead bulkheads. This prevented the forward and aft crew areas from having direct contact after boarding the aircraft. The system could track an object the size of a soccer ball from a distance of , and its mission was to monitor Soviet ballistic missile testing in the reentry phase. The power requirement for the phased array radar was enormous, necessitating an additional power supply. This took the form of a podded General Electric J-85 turbojet engine in a pod under the inboard wing section, driving a generator dedicated to mission equipment. On the opposite wing in the same location was a podded heat exchanger to permit cooling of the massive electronic components onboard the aircraft. This configuration has led to the mistaken impression that the aircraft had six engines. On June 5, 1969, Rivet Amber was lost on a ferry flight from Shemya to Eielson, and no trace of the aircraft or its crew was ever found.

RC-135M Rivet Card

The RC-135M was an interim type with more limited ELINT capability than the RC-135C but with extensive additional capability. They were operated by the 82d Reconnaissance Squadron during the Vietnam War from Kadena AB, gathering Signals intelligence with the platform name Combat Apple. There were six RC-135M aircraft, 62-4131, 62-4132, 62-4134, 62-4135, 62-4138 and 62-4139, all of which were later modified to RC-135V/W configuration by the early 1980s. During a mission for Operation Enduring Freedom on March 12 2008, 62-4132 became the first of any C-135 airframe to surpass 50,000 flying hours.

RC-135S Rivet Ball

Rivet Ball was the predecessor program to Cobra Ball and was initiated with a single RC-135S (serial 59-1491, formerly a JKC-135A) on December 31, 1961, although the "Rivet Ball" name was not assigned until 1967. The aircraft was deployed from Shemya, Alaska. During its conversion, a large radome was installed to house the aircraft's mission-specific S band radar. Besides the over-sized radome, the aircraft was characterized by ten large optically flat quartz windows on the right side of the fuselage used for tracking cameras. Rivet Ball holds the distinction of obtaining the first photographic documentation of Soviet Multiple Reentry vehicle (MRV) testing on 4 October 1968. The aircraft was destroyed in a landing accident at Shemya on 13 January 1969, although there were no fatalities.

RC-135S Cobra Ball

The RC-135S Cobra Ball is a MASINT aircraft equipped with special optical instruments designed to observe ballistic missile flights at long range. The aircraft are extensively modified C-135Bs. There are four aircraft in service and they are part of the 55th Wing, 45th Reconnaissance Squadron based at Offutt Air Force Base, Nebraska. Cobra Ball aircraft were originally assigned to Shemya and used to observe ballistic missile tests on the Kamchatka peninsula in conjunction with Cobra Dane and Cobra Judy.

Cobra Ball Aircraft

Type Registration / Serial Number

  • TC-135S 62-4133 / flight crew trainer
  • RC-135S 61-2662 / cn 18292 - converted C-135B, NC-135B, AFSC-ASD back-up to communications satellite
  • RC-135S 61-2663 / cn 18333 - converted C-135B, VC-135B
  • RC-135S 61-2664 / cn 18340 - (Lost March 15, 1981 at Shemya)
  • JC-135B 62-4128 / cn 18468 - converted C-135B, EC-135N, RC-135X Cobra Eye, RC-135S Cobra Ball, AFSC-ASD

RC-135U Combat Sent

The RC-135U, or Combat Sent, is a reconnaissance aircraft in use by the United States Air Force. The aircraft is designed to collect technical intelligence on adversary systems. Distinctly identified by the antennae arrays on the nose and wing tips of the airframe, along with extended tail, there are currently only 2 Combat Sents in the USAF, both based at Offutt AFB, Nebraska, under the 55th Wing. Minimum crew requirements are 2 pilots, 2 navigators, 3 systems engineers, 10 electronic warfare officers, and 6 area specialists.

RC-135V/W Rivet Joint

The RC-135V/W sensor suite allows the mission crew to detect, identify and geolocate signals throughout the electromagnetic spectrum. The mission crew can then forward gathered information in a variety of formats to a wide range of consumers via Rivet Joint's extensive communications suite. The interior seats 34 people, including the cockpit crew, electronic warfare officers, intelligence operators and airborne systems engineers. All Rivet Joint airframe and mission systems modifications are performed by L-3 Communications in Greenville, Texas, under the oversight of the Air Force Materiel Command.

All RC-135s are assigned to Air Combat Command. The RC-135 is permanently based at Offutt Air Force Base, Neb., and operated by the 55th Wing, using various forward deployment locations worldwide. http://www.af.mil/factsheets/factsheet.asp?id=121 Under the "BIG SAFARI" program name, RC-135Vs were upgraded from the RC-135C "Big Team" configuration, itself a mission modified RC-135B (the first version delivered). The difference between the original and upgraded RC-135Vs and Ws is the different engines used.

RC-135X Cobra Eye

Another variation is the RC-135X, only one of which was created (from an C-135B Telemetry/Range Instrumented Aircraft) in the mid-1980s and used to track missile reentry vehicles. In 1993, it was converted into an additional RC-135S.


Future operators

  • Royal Air Force - A possible sale of three former United States Air Force KC-135R aircraft converted to RC-135V/W Rivet Joint standard has been notified to the United States congress by the American Defense Security Cooperation Agency.

Specifications (C-135)

RC-135 Rivet Joint
Crew27 (augmented): 3 Pilots, 2 Navigators, 22 Recon Crewmembers
Length135 ft41.1 m
Wingspan131 ft39.9 m
Height42 ft12.8 m
Wing area2,433 ft²226 m²
Empty98,466 lb44,664 kg
Loaded106,306 lb48,220 kg
Maximum take-off297,000 lb134,000 kg
EnginesFour CFM International F108-CF-201 high bypass turbofan engines
Thrust21600 lbf
Maximum speed500 mph (Mach 0.86)800 km/h
Combat range3,900 mi6,500 km
Ferry range
Service ceiling44,000 ft13.4 km
Rate of climb

Other Characteristics

  • Contractor: L-3 Communications
  • Mission flight crew: 21-27, depending on mission requirements, minimum consisting of 3 Electronic Warfare Officers (Ravens), 14 Intelligence Operators and 4 Airborne Systems Engineers.
  • Date Deployed: Initial RC-135 conversions from 1964-1968; V/W configurations, 1981
  • Inventory: Active force, 17; Reserve, 0; Guard, 0

See also


External links

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