The RC-135 series of aircraft is a proven commodity regarding operations of the United States Air Force (USAF) in various data-collecting / surveillance roles. The aircraft are forged from the proven framework of the Boeing Model 717/C-135 "Stratolifter" transport of 1957 and the design is recognized by Boeing as the "Model 739". The four-engined C-135 took its first flight in August of 1956 and was introduced into service with the USAF the following year. Sixty of these were fashioned and notable variants went on to include the RC-135, NC-135, and EC-135 models.
A total of thirty-two aircraft have been used in the RC-135 family's history with service introduction coming in 1961 (through the RC-135S model). This was followed in 1962 by the RC-135D production mark.
The RC-135 has been operated by both the USAF and the British Royal Air Force (RAF) services, the former through the 55th Wing out of Offutt Air Force Base, Nebraska and the latter through No.1 Group of RAF Waddington, Lincolnshire, England.
The aircraft carries an operational crew of about thirty personnel which includes a pair of pilots as well as a navigator. This is rounded out by dedicated intelligence staff members (numbering about fourteen), specially-trained Electronic Warfare (EW) officers ( at least three), and in-flight maintenance technical support persons (four). The platform is equipped for modern intelligence-gathering sorties and appropriately equipped with processing systems from various American defense provides including Lockheed.
Modern RC-135 airframes have distinct qualities: a uniquely-formed nose assembly housing sensors and, along the sides of the nose (at the "cheek" positions), are embedded antennas for the "Automatic ELINT Emitter Locator System" (AAELS). The fuselage's dorsal spine also sees a broad collection of antennas running aft of the cockpit to just-ahead of the tail fin. Along the belly are seen more protrusions.
The RC-135 retains the four-engined arrangement of the C-135 Stratolifter with each unit underslung at each wing member. The members provide sweepback along both leading and training edges. The tail is made up of a conventional plane arrangement featuring a single fin with low-set horizontal planes. A tricycle undercarriage is used for ground-running.
Dimensions include a running length of 136.2 feet, a wingspan of 130.9 feet, and a height of 41.7 feet. Empty weight is 124,000lb against an MTOW of 322,500lb. RC-135 aircraft can reach speeds of 580 miles-per-hour out to a range of 3,450 miles and up to a ceiling of 50,000 feet. Rate-of-climb is 4,900 feet-per-minute.
The RC-135 originally carried 4 x Pratt & Whitney TF33-P-9 turbofan engines but the fleet was later re-engined with CFM International F108-CF-201 turbofans (22,000lb thrust each) to extend their operational loitering times and range while also increasing the service lives of these critical in-air platforms. The first of these improved RC-135V models was introduced in 2001.
The RC-135A series has produced a slew of common airframe forms: the RC-135A was fashioned from four KC-135A aerial tanker examples in 1961 and used in the photographic-mapping role. The RC-135R "Rivet Stand" / "Rivet Quick" aircraft were three KC-135A reconnaissance conversions of 1963. In 1969 arrived the KC-135T "Cobra Jaw" with a new radome assembly added and special antennas fitted.
The RC-135B models were used to succeed the Boeing RB-47H "Stratojet" bombers converted to the SIGnals INTelligence (SIGINT) role. The RC-135B never flew in an operational sense and arrived with no mission equipment. These went on to be completed as RC-135C models under "Big Safari". RC-135C "Big Team" models carried AN/ASD-1 ELINT suites.
The "Office Boy" project produced the RC-135D "Office Boy" / "Rivet Brass" mark of 1962 with operational service beginning in 1963. The RC-135S "Cobra Bell" is used to monitor for foreign missile launches. The RC-135X "Cobra Eye" was used in the 1960s to monitor reentry of InterContinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs). RC-135U "Combat Sent" has been developed as a radar emitter collector. The TC-135 is used for crew training duties.
The RC-135W "Rivet joint" for the British Royal Air Force, under "Project Airseeker", covered three KC-135R aircraft converted to the RC-135W Rivet Joint standard and entered service in October of 2014 through No.51 Squadron RAF. These were used to succeed the outgoing line of Nimrod R.1 platforms which had run their course.
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