RC-135 Rivet Joint flies in front of the crowd at Oshkosh, Wisconsin’s EAA AirVenture. The C-135/C-137/B-707 family has many variants that formerly have, and still serve military air arms around the world.
As the Boeing 707 and 717 models of the 1950s matured, the shorter 717 was renamed as the C-135 for the U.S. Air Force. Numerous versions of the C-135 were used as aerial tankers, reconnaissance platforms, test beds for engine, equipment and weapons tests, and transports for cargo and personnel. Let’s take a look at many of the different variants of the original C-135 in military use… and include larger versions of the B-707 adapted for use by the world’s military air arms too.
Aerial Refueling Tankers
KC-135A assigned to the 509th ARW at Pease AFB. The longer runways of Strategic Air Command bases required by its bombers, suited the KC-135As well; they needed water injection for added thrust for takeoffs at high gross weight.
KC-135D at an International Air Tattoo in the U.K. The -D versions were four C-135s that had air refueling equipment added after use in a non-tanker aircraft. All four served together in Numerous Air National Guard units.
KC-135E of the New Jersey Air National Guard. The -E was an original -A reengined with TF-33 engines and fitted with replacement tail surfaces to prolong service life. Almost all KC-135Es were operated by the Air national Guard.
KC-135R assigned to the 916 ARW based at Seymour-Johnson AFB, North Carolina. The KC-135Rs are modified -A aircraft equipped with more efficient CFM-56 (F108 engines in USAF use) turbofan jet engines. Eight KC-135Rs have added air refuel receptacles, and thus are able to take on fuel as well as offload it in flight. These are sometimes identified as KC-135R(RT) or KC-135R(ARR) versions.
The KC-135Q was essentially a KC-135A that could carry special fuel needed by SR-71A supersonic recon jets, and associated electronic equipment for communications and join-ups.
The 54 KC-135Ts are re-engined KC-135Qs, which were initially used to refuel the SR-71A Blackbird fleet. The -Q version differed from the -A tanker with the ability to carry the different fuel needed buy initial SR-71 use, and communications and electronic rendezvous equipment.
KC-135FR: The French Air Force purchased fifteen KC-135F variants, similar to the KC-135A, to be used with French nuclear bombers, akin to the USAF’s own needs. These jets were also re-engined with CFM-56 turbofans, and renamed the “KC-135FR”. The forces of Singapore, Turkey and Chile have or are still using former USAF KC-135s too.
Transports, Command and Control, and Testbeds
C-135C was known for its test program name “Speckled Trout”. Based at Edwards AFB to be used on test programs, it also served as the personal transport for the Secretary and Chief of Staff of the U.S. Air Force.
The EC-135E ARIA (Advanced Range Instrumentation Aircraft) served during the NASA Apollo spacecraft launches, as well as other rocket launches. The “droop snoot” held telemetry tracking equipment inside of it.
This EC-18B was a larger aircraft than the EC-135E ARIA, based on the B-707-320/C-137 airframe. A number of these jets were produced; some were used for tracking purposed during cruise missile test flights.
The Boeing E-6B Mercury is a command and control flying platform for control of land, air and sea based nuclear weapons of the United States. Operated by U.S. Navy crews, the aircraft has a Very Low Frequency aerial antenna that is used to communicate with submarines.
This EC-135A was a national emergency command post originally assigned to the 99th AREFS at Westover AFB as a SAC asset.
EC-135C: Part of the continuous Looking Glass airborne command post mission that saw an aircraft in the air 24 hours a day for all seven days of the week. This jet served almost thirty years as a command and control jet before being retired in 1994.
This EC-135G aircraft was part of the large airborne radio relay operation that the U.S. Air Force once flew.
This NKC-135A was used as a testbed for numerous Air Force test programs and was also used as a water sprayer for testing the abilities of aircraft in known icing conditions.
This NKC-135A was used in airborne laser development and testing.
This NKC-135E is outfitted with many camera ports, and with older TF-33 engines. It was operated from Edwards AFB by the 412th Test Wing.
This TC-135S is a crew training aircraft, based at Offutt AFB, Nebraska.
This TC-135W is a former weather research aircraft… also known for air sampling for nuclear fall out after foreign nuclear tests.
VC-137B was an executive transport for senior government and military officials. It was based at Andrews AFB, near Washington D.C..
The C-135B was the first C-135 version to use the TF-33 turbofan engine. It could carry cargo or personnel. This aircraft is in the 89 Airlift Wing’s VIP color scheme, taken at Andrews AFB.
Reconnaissance and Observation
This is one of three OC-135B aircraft used in the Open Skies mission… which allows any country that is part of the agreement the right to overfly any part of each other’s lands.
The RC-135S Cobra Ball has modifications to its airframe to assist it with tracking ballistic and other classes of missiles.
The RC-135U Combat Sent has a radio emissions reconnaissance mission. Three airframes have been modified for this program.
RC-135V Rivet Joint is part of a group of C-135 airframes which eavesdrop on communications around the world.
RC-135W Rivet Joint aircraft originally had different engines than the RC-135V sister aircraft. With the upgrade to F108 turbofans, both airframes are very similar now.
The U.K’s Royal Air Force recently began operating RC-135W Rivet Joint aircraft with their own equipment which differs from the U.S. Air Force’s equipment. The RAF’s RC-135s were chosen after the Nimrod R.1 jets were retired in 2011.
Some International Users