RC-135 History: The Hidden Hero of the Skies
This article was originally written for an air power theory course given at the University of Nebraska at Omaha in December 2009. At the urging of my professor, I present this piece to further spread the knowledge of this little known platform. While many technical aspects are kept at the highest national security level, here are the data based upon findings supported by facts rather than fiction. I post this on the 29th anniversary of the Cobra Ball II (CBII) crash at Shemya AFB, Alaska in reflection of the six aircrew members who lost their lives tragically doing what they loved: flying.
The RC-135 platform saves lives and affects military actions worldwide by using unique software suites to assist in collecting intelligence data. The Cold War raged on in 1959 with a stalemate between the United States and the Soviet Union. Weapons development in direct retaliation to each countries’ programs became commonplace. The United States recognized a need to collect data on Soviet Union weapons testing in order to prepare their own weapons for a potential strike. The KC-135 Stratotanker, delivered in 1957, received consideration and eventual modifications to facilitate the growing need to monitor threats from the Soviet Union’s weapons and potential advancements. The Big Safari program, with its highly sensitive projects, became the focal point for aircraft entering the reconnaissance world.
The Stratotanker and C-135 Stratolifter, each made by the Boeing Company since 1957, were originally designed to facilitate mid-air refueling and to transport troops and equipment. Modified KC-135s and C-135s have flown as command posts, electronic reconnaissance, photo mapping, and purely transport aircraft. A KC-135A received modifications in 1961 to quickly collect on an announced Soviet Union detonation test of an alleged 100 megaton thermonuclear device called the “Tsar Bomba” under the Big Safari program. Despite suffering scorching on the fuselage, the converted aircraft succeeded in its mission by bringing back photographs of the test as well as electromagnetic data to confirm the United State’s suspicions on the bomb’s actual size and how it worked. This proved that the KC-135 had a valuable mission in supporting national level intelligence agencies with viable airborne collected data.
The C-135 variant adapted to photo mapping reconnaissance by the Air Photographic and Charting Service served a short life as a reconnaissance aircraft. But with the technological advances in satellite imagery, the aircraft quickly lost its edge. Due to this development, the RC-135A fleet quickly changed to staff transports after equipment removal.
The RC-135B, the “as is” delivery configuration straight from Boeing, never saw operational use since it lacked mission gear. Upon delivery, these ten aircrafts went straight to the Martin Aircraft Company’s location in Baltimore, Maryland for mission gear installation under the Big Safari program’s watchful eye. Once the aircraft received mission gear and official clearance as mission ready, the designator changed to RC-135C Big Team. The mission equipment included cheek pods on the aircraft’s front fuselage to house the Automated Electronic Intelligence Emitter Locating System (AEELS), AN/AS-1 electronic intelligence (ELINT) system, as well as numerous antennae and cameras set up in the former refueling pod in the aft section. Once the RC-135C received operational status, Strategic Air Command (SAC) at Offutt Air Force Base (AFB), Nebraska retired the aging RB-47H from active reconnaissance duties.
Rivet Stand / Rivet Quick Platform
The KC-135R Rivet Stand/Rivet Quick configuration moved the KC-135A platforms (converted in the original Soviet mission in 1961) to update their equipment and change the antenna configuration on the upper spine on the fuselage. The aircraft retained the tanker radar dome nose all except for 58-0126, which received the elongated nose — referred to by crew members as the “hog nose” or “snoopy nose.” Tail 126 became the last aircraft converted into this configuration in 1969 to replace crashed tail number 59-1465. The spinal antennas made these jets easily distinguishable from normal KC-135s. Tail 465 crashed on July 17, 1967 during takeoff on a training mission when the pilot over-rotated at a low altitude and stalled the engines. One aircrew member died out of the five who were on board.
KC-135A-II, later known as the RC-135D Rivet Bras, delivered to Eielson Air Force Base, Alaska in 1962 for the Office Boy project under Big Safari, included tail numbers 60-0356, 60-0357, and 60-0362. The Rivet Ball, tail number 59-1491, never underwent this configuration despite persistent rumors to do otherwise. This aircraft, however, did not see an operational mission until 1963. The aircraft did not have the refueling boom which made them essentially C-135As. Their primary mission included flights along the northern Soviet Union and shuttle missions between Eielson AFB and Royal Air Force (RAF) Upper Heyford in Oxfordshire and RAF Mildenhall in Suffolk, United Kingdom. In January 1967, the official name changed from Office Boy to Rivet Brass, coinciding with the Rivet Ball and Rivet Amber (a renaming from Wanda Belle and Lisa Ann respectively). The Rivet Brass aircraft received reconfiguration to KC-135Rs after the RC-135 fleet expanded in the late 1970s with increased power turbofan engines.
The RC-135E Rivet Amber was a unique aircraft originally designated C-135B-II and modified under the Lisa Ann project with tail number 62-4137. It was named after the Big Safari program director F.E. O’Rear’s daughter and had large phased-array radar systems that weighed in at over 35,413 pounds. At $35 million dollars, Rivet Amber was the single most expensive aircraft in the entire United States Air Force in 1960. The advance radar capability allowed crew members to track objects “the size of a soccer ball from a range of 300 nautical miles.” The radar required an additional auxiliary generator and a heat exchanger to provide enough power for operation and to keep the aircrew safe. The Rivet Amber and Rivet Ball, designed to work together, collected data on missile testing from the Soviet Union launching onto Kamchatka Peninsula and the Pacific Ocean. The Rivet Amber’s first operational mission occurred on September 28, 1965, almost two years after Rivet Ball became operational. This team went on in harmony until 1969 when crashes took both aircrafts down.
The RC-135S contained several program names: Nancy Rae, Wanda Belle, and Rivet Ball for aircraft tail number 59-1491. She started an asset for the Air Force Systems Command then pushed to SAC in October 1963 as Wanda Belle. In January 1967, the program name changed again to Rivet Ball. Rivet Ball contained the hog nose that other RC-135s are famous for along with ten large windows on the right side fuselage for the tracking cameras and a black wing to reduce glare on the cameras’ film. Unlike other variants, Rivet Ball had a large dome mounted on the top center for the Manual Tracking position. The aircraft became known as the first KC-135 of any variant to perform a reconnaissance mission as well as the first to photograph multiple reentry vehicles on a Soviet Union missile test.
The Rivet Ball, the first RC-135S, had tail number 491 and was nicknamed “the iron pumpkin” by crewmembers. It crash landed at Shemya AFB, Alaska on January 13, 1969 from hydroplaning off the runway heading twenty-eight into the forty foot ravine. Eighteen crewmembers on board walked away from the wreckage without any fatalities. Ice covering the runway caused the crash shortly after midnight. The aircraft commander Major John Achor managed to shut down the aircraft’s alternators before leaving the runway which, in the crew’s opinion, saved the jet from crashing into the telephone poles supporting runway ten’s approach lights. Video taken by Captain Robert L. “Viper” Brown shows the dramatic crash’s aftermath with the fuselage cracked at the wings’ leading edges and the wings themselves bent upward from the ground. Fortunately, no one chose to ride in the Manual Tracker position in the dome, otherwise, the crash would have proved deadly. The reference to pumpkins comes from Cinderella and the coach turning back into the pumpkin at midnight. Reportedly, Captain Ellis S. Williams, the second navigator, responded to a Major from the control tower in the Shemya infirmary that the aircraft turned into a pumpkin on the initial touchdown and that the runway not being cleared the last 2,000 feet did not make a difference. The Rivet Ball served seven years faithfully collecting on the Soviet Union missile launches without fail until the aircraft slid off the runway and ended up at the base dump. It was a total loss, except for her electronic equipment and the eighteen lives she saved on landing.
Rivet Amber: Her Disappearance
The Rivet Amber, using call sign Irene 92, departed Shemya AFB, Alaska for Eielson AFB, Alaska. The aircraft, loaded with nineteen people onboard, left early in the morning on June 5, 1969 for routine maintenance. Approximately forty minutes into the flight, Irene 92 called Elmendorf AFB, Alaska reporting a potential emergency. Transcripts from the radio communication mentioned vibrations in flight with no other description and the pilot ordering the crew to use oxygen while broadcasting on the radio. After almost an hour of repeated microphone keying without any clear message, radio silence occurred. From takeoff to the last known communication, including microphone keying, an hour and thirty minutes passed. After Rivet Amber failed to check in on a regularly scheduled basis, Colonel Leslie W. Brockwell, the 6th Strategic Reconnaissance Wing (SRW) commander, initiated the search and rescue operation. Aircraft and crews from the 6th SRW combed the waters between Shemya AFB to the Alaskan mainland. The search aircraft flew as low as 300 feet above the water looking for anything indicating the Rivet Amber, such as crew members, aircraft remains, oil slicks on the surface, life rafts, and parachutes. The search raged on for almost two weeks with no indication. The aircraft just went completely missing. She is presumed lost somewhere in the Bering Sea and her disappearance remains a mystery.
The Cobra Ball
Losing both the Rivet Ball and Rivet Amber in 1969 set not only the aircrews that worked with both aircraft emotionally back but also the intelligence network and the ability to monitor the Soviet Union missile threat. The Big Safari program scrambled to replace the downed aircraft with a viable, technologically advanced replacement. In the interim, the Navy and Army pitched in with the EA-3B SkyWarrior to cover the gap. The answer for coverage, the RC-135S Cobra Ball, tail numbers 61-2663 delivered October 1969 and 61-2664 delivered March 1972.
The Cobra Ball, preceded by Rivet Ball, retained the black wing for reducing optical glare. The aircraft, loaded with measurement and signal intelligence (MASINT) collection equipment and paired with special electro-optical instruments, observed ballistic missile flights at long distance. The aircraft originally started as C-135B before extensive modifications. This aircraft configuration did not escape without peril at Shemya AFB, Alaska.
The Last Flight of Cobra Ball 664
On March 15, 1981, tail number 61-2664, known as Cobra Ball II, departed Eielson AFB, Alaska with twenty-four crewmembers. The crew awaited the weather at Shemya AFB, Alaska to clear before setting out for home. A KC-135 preceded the “Ball” by about three hours and landed in good weather without a scratch. As the Ball made her descent to the difficult landing at Shemya AFB, the weather turned and left the aircraft in low visibility, fog, blowing snow, and sleet. Crosswinds on the runway complicated the difficult landing on “the Rock.” The tower cleared the aircraft to land in these sketchy weather conditions. Fraught with turbulence, the aircraft came down in the darkness looking for a little rock in the churning Bering Sea. The jet came down too low and off the runway too far to land. The pilot, knowing he could not abort the landing, executed a shallow right turn in a desperate attempt to save the aircraft. The black wing struck the cliff at 02:30 traveling over 200 miles per hour with both engines exploding on impact. The jet, overweight and fatally wounded, skidded down the runway in multiple sections and came to rest off the runway. The tail section completely seared off and five men died on impact. Dr. Kerry A. Crooks recounts the event in “The Ides of March,” (available on Kingdon Hawes’ website) that Bill Van Horn and himself pulled Loren Ginter to safety before the aircraft exploded. Sadly, Ginter became the sixth and final casualty from the twisted and broken bird when he succumbed to his injuries in the hospital.
Replacement Cobra Ball
The replacement Cobra Ball, delivered in 1983, took over the first aircraft spot with tail number 663 reverting to the second. The new aircraft carried the same configuration as the recently updated tail number 663. The RC-135X Cobra Eye, tail number 62-4128, received usage as a telemetry and range instrumented aircraft helping to track Intercontinental Ballistic Missile reentry vehicles. The program itself deactivated in 1993 and all mission equipment removed from tail 128. After realizing the need for another Cobra Ball in late 1995, tail number 128 received a new lease on life as Cobra Ball II and pushed tail number 663 to become Cobra Ball III. Tail number 128, delivered in November 2000 to Offutt AFB, Nebraska, became the last jet added to the Cobra Ball arsenal. Two jets are always maintained in the fleet with the third carrying a backup status while undergoing upgrades.
The RC-135M Rivet Card temporarily replaced the Big Team variant with more Elint capabilities and the additional communication intelligence (COMINT) capability. The aircraft, six in total, operated from Kadena Air Base (AB), Japan during Vietnam. The aircraft gathered Signals Intelligence (SIGINT) from the Gulf of Tonkin as well as Laos under the program Combat Apple. The Rivet Brass augmented Rivet Card during down time. All six aircrafts received Rivet Joint modifications by the early 1980s.
The KC-135R 55-3121 Rivet Quick received modifications under Cobra Jaw in 1970. Unique external features included spinning receivers that looked like fangs under the nose, a blade antenna on the fuselage, teardrop antennas on the aft fuselage before the horizontal stabilizers, and a trapeze looking structure where the boom is located. In the early 1970s, the platform again underwent phasing to the RC-135T Rivet Dandy to supplement the RC-135C/D/M fleet. The aircraft went through planned maintenance to upgrade intelligence equipment as well as airframe extending preservation. In 1973, the Rivet Dandy demoted to the trainer mission and its SIGINT gear removed to KC-135R 58-0126. It retained the hog nose but lost the trapeze below the tail and never received a boom. The aircraft received common modifications such as engine upgrades suitable to other KC-135E tankers. It crashed on February 25, 1985 on approach to Valdez, Alaska with three crewmembers on board. The crash site remained hidden until August 1985.
The RC-135U Combat Sent, with currently existing tail numbers 64-14847 and 64-14849, received modification from Big Teams from June 1971 to December 1971. The aircraft configuration is employed as a scientific and technical ELINT platform. The Combat Sent collects signals on a wide range spectrum and allows for both automated and manual collection. The time spent between the Big Teams and Combat Sent configuration suggests the aircraft might have sat in storage. These aircrafts, since their conversion, have seen missions all over the world including during Operation Desert Storm, Operation Enduring Freedom, and Operation Iraqi Freedom.
The RC-135V/W Rivet Joint, modified from the RC-135C/M, started conversions in 1973, to receive updated SIGINT sensor suites. These allowed the crews to detect, identify, and geo-locate signals with ease up to 130 nautical miles away. The aircraft retained the Big Team’s AEELS and hog nose. The RC-135V variants are modified from the Big Team platform while the RC-135W variants are from the Rivet Card. The platform uses sophisticated equipment to facilitate intelligence gathering for real time data. The Rivet Joint, referred to as RJ, has a similar appearance to the Cobra Ball, minus the black wing. There are sixteen RJs currently in the fleet. Since 1990, an RJ has been in Southwest Asia continually. First operating from Riyadh AB, Saudi Arabia during Desert Storm and then Prince Sultan AB, Saudi Arabia until May 2003 when operations moved to Al Udeid AB, Qatar. L-3 Communications in Greenville, Texas handles all RC-135 current upgrades.
Reflections on the Recon Platform
The RC-135 family has seen both tragedy and close calls in nearly fifty years of flight. The RJ is currently spread in locations throughout the world including Kadena AB, Japan, RAF Mildenhall, United Kingdom, and the 55th Wing’s home, Offutt AFB, Nebraska. The Combat Sent and Cobra Ball maintain primary basing from Offutt AFB and forward deploy to multiple locations throughout the world to support their unique missions. In recent conflicts, all three variants saw sorties flown to support both the Global War on Terror as well as Operation Iraqi Freedom. This signified a milestone for Cobra Ball crews since all previous deployments supported the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty verification process and independent missile launches. The missions flown by these jets are not without risk. One notable event occurred on March 3, 2003 with the Cobra Ball receiving an unwelcome party on a mission over the Sea of Japan by two MiG-29s and two MiG-23s. One MiG-29, video-recorded by an aircrew member, came within fifty feet to the Cobra Ball. The video aired on March 4, 2009 on Comedy Central's “The Daily Show,” and was shown along with mocking of the North Koreans and “Top Gun” references.
The realization for intelligence aircraft in the late 1950s has influenced the entire Air Force’s modus operandi on reliance from satellite and aircraft rather than humans on the ground passing the information. The platform development since inception has become more sophisticated with analog recorders replaced by digital data collection methods and software packages that encompass the entire mission in a single case. The mission has stayed the same with changes to the target and improved methods rather than reinventing intelligence. The RC-135 platform has an intriguing past that helps shed light on this little known aircraft.
- Aircraft backgrounds taken from: Boeing Company, “KC-135 Stratotanker Home,” (accessed November 1, 2009); Federation of American Scientists [known hereafter as FAS.org], “Big Safari,” fas.org (accessed October 15, 2009); USAF, “55th Wing History fact sheet,” (accessed December 5, 2009).
- Nuclearweaponarchive.org, “Big Ivan, The Tsar Bomba (“King of Bombs”),” (last updated September 3, 2007; accessed November 2, 2009).
- Footage Bakery, “Air Photographic and Charting Service,” (accessed November 16, 2009).
- Aviation Safety Network, “ASN Aircraft accident Boeing KC-135A Stratotanker 59-1465 – Bellevue-Offutt AFB, NE (OFF),” (accessed November 5, 2009).
- Kingdon R. Hawes, “A Tail of Two Airplanes,” rc135.com (accessed October 4, 2009).
- FAS.org, “Rivet Brass,” (accessed November 3, 2009); Kingdon R. Hawes, “A Tail of Two Airplanes,” rc135.com (accessed October 4, 2009).
- Check-Six.com, “Rivet Amber,” (accessed December 1, 2009); Hawes, (accessed October 4, 2009); George Smith, “The Story of Rivet Amber,” hlswilliwaw.com (accessed December 9, 2009); Joe Baugher, “Aircraft Serial Number Search,” cgibin.rcn.com (accessed December 9, 2009); Aviation Safety Network, “ASN Aircraft accident RC-135E 62-4137 – Shemya, AK,” (accessed December 9, 2009).
- Global Security.org, “Cobra Ball,” (accessed December 9, 2009).
- New York Times, “Around the nation: Air Force Team to Study Crash Fatal to 5 in Alaska,” nytimes.com (accessed December 9, 2009); Kingdon Hawes, “Cobra Ball II Memorial,” (accessed December 9, 2009); Kerry A. Cooks, “The Ides of March,” (accessed December 9, 2009).
- Taxiway Alpha, “62-418/OF – Boeing 707-C-B-USAF,” (accessed December 9, 2009); Global Security, “Cobra Ball,” (accessed December 9, 2009).
- Joe Baugher, “Aircraft Serial Number Search,” cgibin.rcn.com(accessed December 9, 2009); FAS.org, “Rivet Brass,” (accessed November 3, 2009); FAS.org, “Rivet Joint,” (accessed November 20, 2009).
- Joe Baugher, “Aircraft Serial Number Search,” cgibin.rcn.com (accessed December 9, 2009); Aviation Safety Network, “ASN Aircraft accident Boeing RC-135T 55-3121 – Valdez, AK,” (accessed December 9, 2009).
- Eric Schmitt, “North Korea MIG’s Intercept U.S. Jet On Spying Mission,” nytimes.com (accessed December 8, 2009).
- Daily Show, “Korea in Krisis – Spy Plane,” (accessed December 10, 2009).