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RC-135: The Giant Spy Plane

Written by Robert Lingham

A US Air Force RC-135 Rivet Joint reconnaissance aircraft taxies down the runway at Prince Sultan Air Base, Saudi Arabia, during Operation SOUTHERN WATCH. The RC-135 is a part of the coalition forces of the 363rd Air Expeditionary Wing, Prince Sultan AB, SAU, that enforces the no-fly and no-drive zone in Southern Iraq to protect and defend against Iraqi aggression. https://nara.getarchive.net/media/a-us-air-force-rc-135-rivet-joint-reconnaissance-aircraft-taxies-down-the-runway-f53791


Before satellite surveillance, the superpowers needed to spy on each other during a little conflict known as the Cold War. What was required was a way of spying on the enemy at a distance, not just to take photographs but gather as much data as possible and then get the hell out of there.

The answer to this need for espionage was spy planes. You may know of the heavy hitters like the U2 or the Blackbird, but what of the giants? That’s what we’re looking at today on Megaprojects; a relic from the Cold War that is still used in combat missions today.

This is the Boeing RC-135, the giant spy plane.

–Title Card–

Cold War

At the beginning of the 1960s, the Cold War was in full swing with each side making strides into the best ways of ensuring that they could destroy one another if there was ever a need to. Spying was the main aspect of this conflict and the US needed to know what the Soviets were up to. Not by deploying spies on the ground, but in the sky.

Aerial intelligence gathering wasn’t a new concept but during the cold war, it became an invaluable resource. With leaps and bounds in aviation technology on both sides of the iron curtain, new high-speed spy planes were developed but their job was to take pictures and run, a paparazzi of aerial espionage.

This was brilliant at seeing if a new base had been built or if troops had been deployed to a different area. However, there were drawbacks to aerial photography. Pictures provided what was happening on the ground, but what the US defence chiefs wanted were more details on the Soviet’s developments.  The only way to do that was to have a vehicle outfitted with equipment that could look deeper than what could be with the naked eye.

For this task, a support vehicle would be required, equipped with an array of sensors capable of analysing electromagnetic frequencies, radar data and radio communications to provide meticulous intelligence on places of interest.



The US Air Force already had a large reconnaissance plane but the ageing Boeing B-50 Superfortress needed replacing if they were going to keep up in this new era of warfare. Propeller driven beasts of the sky had to make way for jet-powered goliaths.  

https://flic.kr/p/buUt6B Boeing B-50 Superfortress

For the design of this new aircraft, the Air Force approached Boeing again to design their new plane.

Instead of starting from scratch, Boeing already had a plane in development, the 367-80 prototype that they had hoped would take the commercial aviation sector by storm.

With its new swept-wing design and discreet nacelles, this sleek airframe may have looked the part, but airlines were unimpressed. Stating that the cabin width, which was too narrow for six-abreast seating, was their main concern making it unsuitable for commercial purposes.

Luckily for Boeing, this airframe could be adapted for the air forces’ needs and they repurposed the prototype. Additionally, the 367-80 was adapted to form the basis of the C-135 Stratolifter as well.

With a length of 135 feet, that’s 41 metres and sitting at a height of 42 feet or 13 metres, with a wingspan covering 131 feet/ 40 metres, this was a monster plane that could pack something more devastating than just bombs; technology. 

Powered by four CFM International F108-CF-201 turbofan engines it had a maximum airspeed of 470 knots or 541 mph and a range of around 3,900 miles or 6,500 kilometres. With this power under its wings it gave the RC-135 a maximum payload of 146 tons. Also, the RC-135 is capable of reaching a service ceiling of 50,000 feet. This meant that the RC-135 could cruise higher than commercial airliners and go longer undetected by an enemy.

Crewed by two pilots and a navigator, there was enough room inside the plane to accommodate 27 crew consisting of intelligence gathering specialists, system operators, in-flight maintenance technicians and airborne linguists, all dependent on mission requirements. 

The interior of the RC-135 resembles a more traditional office setting, rather than that of a military vehicle. With the interior of the RC-135 being fully customisable to suit particular mission needs.

In 1961 the first RC-135s were delivered to replace the Boeing RB-50 Superfortress to the US Air Force. Originally nine were ordered but due to setbacks in production, only four were delivered.  These planes were designed just for aerial surveillance, with a camera fitted in the aft section where an additional fuel tank would usually be.

Now that the US Air Force had their new plane, it needed a home. The RC-135 fleet is permanently based at Offutt Air Force Base, Nebraska.

Originally, all RC-135s were operated by Strategic Air Command. However, since 1992 they have been assigned to Air Combat Command. This unit provides worldwide reconnaissance and real-time intelligence to the US military.


Much like JP Morgan, the RC-135s most distinguishing feature is its nose. Protruding out in front, and catching the attention of onlookers, is the feature that all the RC-135s have in common.

A US Air Force (USAF) RC-135 Rivet Joint, from the 55th Wing, Offutt AFB, Nebraska (NE), patrolling the no fly zone near southern Iraq refuels in flight. https://nara.getarchive.net/media/a-us-air-force-usaf-rc-135-rivet-joint-from-the-55th-wing-offutt-afb-nebraska-9a86f5

–Photo of an RC-135V/W Rivet Joint–


This Radome, also known as the hog nose in the front section of the aircraft houses all of the various sensitive sensors and instruments.

The hog nose may be a common feature but each variant of the RC-135 contains different components. For example, the Rivet Ball variants Radome comprises an S-band receiver antenna with ten large optically flat quartz windows to track cameras. Along with a Plexiglas dome fitted in the centre of the top fuselage for manual position tracking.

From here the information is relayed to the computers and analysts in the fuselage.

Heading down from the nose is a distinctive bulged cheek fairing on the forward fuselage. These contain additional mission equipment accompanied by several antennas along the fuselage.

Various Variants

The history of the RC-135 is a complicated one. Where the designation of RC-135 is given to the family of planes rather than a specific model. This has led to there being over 32 airframes built with 14 different variants of the RC-135. Currently, 22 planes are still in the US Air Force inventory, consisting of the RC-135 S, U, V, or W variants.

We don’t have the time to cover each one and because the scriptwriter for this post was slowly losing his sanity trying to condense them all for one post, but here are a few samples of the variants: 

Why not start with the genesis of the line and the first RC-135. Delivered to the Air Force in 1961, this was just a proof-of-concept model, the RC-135A. This was just used for photographic reconnaissance entering service in the mid-1960s, followed by the first of the electronic intelligence gatherers, the RC-135B. 

The best-known variant is the RC-135V/W the Rivet Joint. Acting as an airborne Signals Intelligence or SIGNIT platform. Its sensor suite allows the mission crew to detect, identify and then geo-locate signals throughout the electromagnetic spectrum. The crew can then forward gathered information in a variety of formats to a wide range of users via Rivet Joint’s extensive communications suite.


The Cobra Jaw Variant was the first of the RC-135s to feature the prominent radome and where the “Hog Nose” got its name from. 

The RC135S or the Cobra Ball variant was customised to be a rapidly deployable aircraft that carries the joint chiefs of staff for missions of national priority and collect optical and electronic data on ballistic targets.

The RC-135X Cobra Eye was a telemetry and missile range instrumentation aircraft. A single airframe was converted to this standard from a C-135B during the late 1980s. Its mission was to track re-entry of intercontinental ballistic missiles.

Just a small pool of what the RC-135 is capable of in and out of combat zones.

Entering the Theatre

Due to the RC-135s long lifespan, from the beginning of its service with Cold War operations, it has been involved in active combat missions in every armed conflict the US has been in since.

The first time RC-135s were used in a combat zone was supporting operations during the Vietnam War. Since then, the RC-135s have maintained a constant presence in the ever-changing theatre of war.

On 9th August 2010, the Rivet Joint program recognized its 20th anniversary of continuous service in the United States Central Command, dating back to the beginning of the first gulf war.

This represents the longest unbroken presence of any aircraft in the US Air Force inventory. During this time, the RC-135s have flown over 8,000 combat missions supporting air and ground forces of Operations Desert Storm, Desert Shield, Northern Watch, Southern Watch, Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom.

–Photo of an RC-135 taking off–


This plane may not carry any traditional weaponry but it offers something else, information.  All the sensors and computers on board this plane mean that combat zones can be assessed and analysed for threats.

The ability to not just observe the frontline but also provide near real-time details on aircraft deployment, troop movements, communications and how an enemy is equipped is invaluable information that this plane was designed for. 

Bumped and Bruised

Despite being a workhorse for the US Strategic Air Command, the RC-135 has not suffered the fate that many aircraft do whilst out on operational missions. Being in the line of fire and engaging in deadly dog fights is not what this plane was built for.

Instances, when an RC-135 has crashed, has often been down to pilot error, bad weather or instrument failure.

An RC-135, The Rivet Amber, on June 5, 1969, departed Shemya air force base in Alaska to Eielson air force base in the same state for routine maintenance. 40 minutes into the flight, radio communication was intercepted in Alaska reporting a potential emergency.


Transcripts from the radio communication mentioned vibrations in flight and the pilot ordering the crew to use oxygen masks. After almost an hour without any clear message, there was silence.

An hour and a half passed from take-off to the last known communication. After Rivet Amber failed to check in on schedule, Colonel Leslie W. Brockwell, the 6th Strategic Reconnaissance Wing commander, initiated a 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. Stranded crew members, aircraft debris, oil slicks on the surface, life rafts or even parachutes. The search continued for almost two weeks with nothing found. The aircraft simply vanished. It is presumed lost somewhere in the Bering Sea and her disappearance remains a mystery.

Another puzzling incident was when an RC-135 wasn’t in a combat operation but it was somewhat involved in a commercial airliner being shot down.

On September 1st, 1983, during a surveillance mission off the coast of the Soviet Union, an RC-135 was gathering intelligence on a location of interest. Whilst gathering the data, the pilot of the plane strayed into the route of Korean Airlines flight 007. This RC-135 got so close to the Korean flight that it almost collided with it. However, disaster was avoided and both planes carried on cruising the skies.

However, two hours later, the Korean Airlines flight had strayed into Soviet airspace. Fighters were quickly scrambled, and a combination of negligence and pilot error led to the Korean plane being shot down.

During the investigation, the Soviet government cited that the pilots of the fighters thought they were targeting a US plane because of the similarity the RC-135 shared with the commercial Boeing 737 airliner.

These claims made by the Soviet government were dismissed by the US government and the tragic events of that day remain unsolved. 

Two years later there was another tragic incident that befell the RC-135. On February 25th, 1985, an RC-135, Rivet Dandy variant operating out of Valdez Municipal Airport in Alaska, was on maneuverers, when it encountered trouble.

This Speed Light model was designed just for flight training and not for operational use. Essentially just a tanker with its main modifications to the engines, allowing the pilots to practice landing and aerial refuelling.

During the first two approaches to the runway, nothing was out of the ordinary. Just a routine training exercise, however, on the third something went wrong. Reports suggest the pilots and navigators became disoriented when the Microwave Landing System told the crew to begin their landing some 4 miles/ 6.4 kilometres north of the advised course.

At 10:41 am, radio contact was lost with the plane. No emergency beacon rang out. Only silence across the airwaves.  The RC-135 had crashed into the side of a mountain, killing all 3 crew members.

A search and rescue attempt was mounted after the accident but the wreckage wasn’t recovered until the 2nd August.

Later it was found that the crew were following the flight plan certified for the de Havilland Canada DHC-7, short take-off and landing or STOL aeroplane. The glide slope and approach for this aircraft are significantly steeper than those for an RC-135 jet.

After this accident, more stringent safety measures were put into place and incidents involving the RC-135 are now far and few between. 

The Crew of a US Air Force (USAF) RC-135 Rivet Joint aircraft, assigned to the 922nd Expeditionary Reconnaissance Squadron (ERS) board their aircraft prior to conducting a mission from Incirlik Air Base (AB), Turkey, during Combined Task Force, Operation NORTHERN WATCH. https://picryl.com/media/the-crew-of-a-us-air-force-usaf-rc-135-rivet-joint-aircraft-assigned-to-the-cf5c7a

A lasting legacy 

With advancements in satellite surveillance technology over the decades since the RC-135 was first deployed, it’s almost staggering it is still in service.  Not only that but it has caught the attention of other nations for their defence.

Due to the success of the RC-135, on 22nd, March 2010 the British Ministry of Defence announced that it had reached an agreement with the US government to purchase three RC-135W Rivet Joint aircraft to replace the Nimrod R1.

A further deal in 2018 between the US Air Force and the British Ministry of Defence secured a contract for continual use of the RC-135s until at least 2045.

While most of the planes and developments made during the Cold War now stand in museums, relics of the age of spying that the world has moved on from, the RC-135 still has a place in the modern world.

Through its adaptability, this may be an old plane, but it still has plenty of life in it yet.








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