Boeing RC-135 Reconnaissance Aircraft

Boeing RC-135 is a four engine, medium weight reconnaissance aircraft designed and manufactured by Boeing Defence and Integrated Systems for the US Air Force (USAF).

January 1964
Numbers Built
Wing Area
Empty Weight
Maximum Take-Off Weight
Fuel Capacity
CFM International F108-CF-201 high bypass turbofan engines
Number of Engines
Maximum Speed
Service Ceiling
Rate of Climb
Boeing Integrated Defence Systems
United States Air Force (USAF) and Royal Air Force (RAF)
CFM International
Airframe and Mission Systems
L-3 Communications

Boeing RC-135 reconnaissance aircraft

Boeing RC-135 is a four engine, medium weight reconnaissance aircraft designed and manufactured by Boeing Defence and Integrated Systems for the US Air Force (USAF).

The aircraft is derived from its predecessor the C-135 Stratolifter and can execute intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) operations. A total of 32 RC-135s were built since 1964.

Boeing RC-135 variants

The RC-135 has 14 variants which include RC-135A, RC-135B, RC-135C Big Team, RC-135D Rivet Brass, RC-135E Rivet Amber, RC-135M Rivet Card, RC-135S Rivet Ball, RC-135S Cobra Ball, RC-135T Rivet Dandy, RC-135T Trainer Configuration, RC-135U Combat Sent, RC-135V/W Rivet Joint, RC-135X Cobra Eye and RC-135W Air Seeker.

The RC-135A is an aerial photo capturing aircraft initially deployed at the Air Photographic & Charting Service based at Turner Air Force Base (AFB), Georgia and later at Forbes AFB.

The RC-135C Big Team is a revised version of the RC-135B, fitted with automated electronic intelligence emitter locating system (AEELS), antenna and a camera on the aft fuselage section.

The RC-135T Rivet Dandy is an altered version of KC-135T fitted with a signal intelligence system (SIGINT).

The RC-135D Rivet Brass is an upgraded version of the RC-135T transformed into KC-135R tankers.

The RC-135E Rivet Amber monitored Soviet ballistic missile demonstration in the re-entry phase. The variant was lost on a ferry flight when flying from Shemya to Eielson on 5 June 1969.

The RC-135S Rivet Ball features an extended nose radome comprising S-band receiver antenna. It is also fitted with ten large optically flat quartz windows to track cameras. This variant is also equipped with a plexiglass dome fitted in the centre of the top fuselage for manual position tracking.

The RC-135S Cobra Ball is an upgraded model of the Rivet Ball, fitted with electro optic sensors for monitoring ballistic missile flights at long range.

The RC-135T trainer was built by removing the signal intelligence gear, refuelling boom and trapeze from the Rivet Dandy.

The RC-135U Combat Sent gathers ELINT data for use in the manufacture of advanced radar warning receivers, jammers, decoys, anti-radiation missiles and training simulators.

The RC-135V/W Rivet Joint is an advance version fitted with a sensor suite for tracking and identifying geo-locate signals within the electromagnetic spectrum.

The RC-135W Air Seeker is a reconnaissance aircraft to be deployed by the RAF by 2014.

Orders and deliveries

On 19 March 2010, the UK Ministry of Defence (MoD) procured three RC-135 Rivet Joint aircraft along with the associated ground systems to execute signal intelligence missions for the RAF. Deliveries began in November 2013 and will continue up to 2018.

The RAF will temporarily borrow the signals of USAF’s Rivet Joint aircraft from the USAF until the deliveries are completed.


The Boeing RC-135 was introduced in January 1964. The aircraft were initially assigned to Strategic Air Command (SAC) and later migrated to Air Combat Command (ACC) in 1992. The ACC fleet is controlled by 55th Wing based at Offutt Air Force Base.

The aircraft was overhauled with significant changes to the airframe and engines in 2005. It was also upgraded with a cockpit inertial navigational system as per the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) standards.

Boeing received a $248m order from the USAF between 1997 and 2002 to build and install re-engine kits for 11 KC-135 and 11 RC-135 aircraft. The re-engine kits incorporate new engine struts and nacelle, structural fittings, wiring harnesses and hardware to upgrade the engines.

The USAF commenced training the RAF’s No 51 squadron crew on the RC-135V/W Rivet Joint aircraft at Offutt Air Force Base as part of an agreement signed between the US Department of Defence and the UK Ministry of Defence in January 2011.

A Family of Advanced Beyond Line-of-Sight Terminals (FAB-T) Nuclear Command and Control Network and Communication System was incorporated and demonstrated on a test version of an RC-135 Rivet Joint Reconnaissance aircraft in April 2011.


The RC-135 features an all-digital glass cockpit which can accommodate 27 crew including cockpit crew, electronic warfare officers, intelligence operators and in-flight maintenance technicians.

It is also fitted with a traffic alert collision avoidance system , UHF radios, satellite antenna, an AEELS system and an electro-optic camera.


Onboard electro-optic sensors fitted in the aircraft trace geo-located signals within the electro-magnetic spectrum and transfer the captured data to operators through secure satellite communication data link.


The Boeing RC-135 is powered by four F108-CF-201 high bypass turbofan engines each of which can produce 21,000lbf of thrust. F108 is the US military designation of the CFM56 engine manufactured by CFM International. The engine reduces fuel consumption, noise and emissions as per the stringent FAR 33-6 ingestion rules.

The length and diameter of the engine are 2.43m and 1.73m respectively. The dry weight is 2,102kg.


The RC-135 can climb at a rate of 1,490m/min. The maximum speed of the aircraft is 933km/h. The range and service ceiling are 5,550km and 15,200m respectively. The aircraft weighs around 78,743kg and its maximum take-off weight is 133,633kg.

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