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Boeing 707 and Variants in Government Service

Updated on August 12, 2018
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A KC-135 flying over the Washington, DC Mall, June 1991.A C-135 at Andrews AFB, Maryland,An RC-135 at Andrews AFB, MD, May 2004.A KC-135 at Andrews AFB, MD, May 2004.A KC-135 at Andrews AFB, MD, May 18, 1990.An E-3 AWACS, Andrews AFB, May 2006.An E-43 AWACS, Andrews AFB, May 2004.A KC-135, Andrews AFB, MDAn RC-135 at Andrews AFB, MDA NATO E-3 AWACS, Andrews AFB, MD.A lineup of C-135s. A KC-135 and an OC-135 in the background.An RC-135 over the Washington DC Mall, June 1991.A VC-137, Andrews AFB, MD, May 1998. A NATO E-3 AWACS, Andrews AFB, MDA USAF E-3 AWACS, Andrews AFB, MD.An RC-135 with the "Let's Roll" emblem.A KC-135, Andrews AFB, MD.The RC-135 Price of Lake Charles, serial number AF 02-9111, with "Let's Roll" emblem.The RC-135 Price of Lake Charles, serial number AF 02-911, Andrews AFB, MD.
A KC-135 flying over the Washington, DC Mall, June 1991.
A KC-135 flying over the Washington, DC Mall, June 1991. | Source
A C-135 at Andrews AFB, Maryland,
A C-135 at Andrews AFB, Maryland, | Source
An RC-135 at Andrews AFB, MD, May 2004.
An RC-135 at Andrews AFB, MD, May 2004. | Source
A KC-135 at Andrews AFB, MD, May 2004.
A KC-135 at Andrews AFB, MD, May 2004. | Source
A KC-135 at Andrews AFB, MD, May 18, 1990.
A KC-135 at Andrews AFB, MD, May 18, 1990. | Source
An E-3 AWACS, Andrews AFB, May 2006.
An E-3 AWACS, Andrews AFB, May 2006. | Source
An E-43 AWACS, Andrews AFB, May 2004.
An E-43 AWACS, Andrews AFB, May 2004. | Source
A KC-135, Andrews AFB, MD
A KC-135, Andrews AFB, MD | Source
An RC-135 at Andrews AFB, MD
An RC-135 at Andrews AFB, MD | Source
A NATO E-3 AWACS, Andrews AFB, MD.
A NATO E-3 AWACS, Andrews AFB, MD. | Source
A lineup of C-135s. A KC-135 and an OC-135 in the background.
A lineup of C-135s. A KC-135 and an OC-135 in the background. | Source
An RC-135 over the Washington DC Mall, June 1991.
An RC-135 over the Washington DC Mall, June 1991. | Source
A VC-137, Andrews AFB, MD, May 1998.
A VC-137, Andrews AFB, MD, May 1998. | Source
A NATO E-3 AWACS, Andrews AFB, MD
A NATO E-3 AWACS, Andrews AFB, MD | Source
A USAF E-3 AWACS, Andrews AFB, MD.
A USAF E-3 AWACS, Andrews AFB, MD. | Source
An RC-135 with the "Let's Roll" emblem.
An RC-135 with the "Let's Roll" emblem. | Source
A KC-135, Andrews AFB, MD.
A KC-135, Andrews AFB, MD. | Source
The RC-135 Price of Lake Charles, serial number AF 02-9111, with "Let's Roll" emblem.
The RC-135 Price of Lake Charles, serial number AF 02-9111, with "Let's Roll" emblem. | Source
The RC-135 Price of Lake Charles, serial number AF 02-911, Andrews AFB, MD.
The RC-135 Price of Lake Charles, serial number AF 02-911, Andrews AFB, MD. | Source

Background

The United States Air Force (USAF) acquired the first Boeing B-707 in August 1956.[i] The USAF gave the military version of the B-707 the designation C-135. Since then about 900 B-707s have been built for militaries and other government agencies. Boeing delivered the last military version of the B-707 in 1990, eight years after Boeing delivered the last production B-707. Most USAF B-707s have the C-135 designation but some have other designations.


[i] Federation of American Scientists, Military Analysis Network, https://fas.org/man/dod-101/sys/ac/c-135.htm, last accessed, 7/20/18.

E-3 Sentry (AWACS)

The E-3 Sentry is an airborne warning and control system. It is commonly called AWACS. It is a modified Boeing 707-320. A 30-foot (9.1 meter) radar dome is above its fuselage. This radar has a range of 250 miles.[i] It can detect targets whether they are flying low to the ground or high in the stratosphere. It can track over 600 targets and interpret 240 simultaneously. The AWACS unrefueled endurance is over 10 hours, all can be refueled in the air[ii]. If need be an AWACS can stay airborne about 24 hours before aircraft maintenance issues force it to land. The unit procurement cost for 3 E-3s purchased in 1978 was $78.1 million.[iii] Its unit cost is $270 million in Fiscal Year 1998 dollars.[iv]

Engineering test and evaluation began on the first E-3 in October 1975. The USAF received its first AWACS in March 1977. The USAF declared it mission capable in April 1978. There are; 32 in the USAF inventory[v], 5 in the Royal Saudi Arabian Air Force, The United Kingdom has 7, France has 4, NATO received 17 AWACS, 14 NATO E-3s are in operation[vi]. The USAF AWACS fleet is upgrading its computer hardware and software. These upgrades are scheduled to be completed in 2020.[vii]

In 1977 the United States was planning to sell 7 E-3s to Iran. The CIA was concerned an Iranian AWACS could cross into the neighboring Soviet Union by accident of design and its technology would fall into Soviet hands.[viii] Congress approved the sale of 7 AWACS to Iran. The fall of the Shah of Iran and Iran becoming a country hostile to the United States occurred before the aircraft were delivered.

In 1981 the United States announced it would sell 5 E-3s to Saudi Arabia. This caused great concern in Israel. Saudi Arabia, which has been at war with Israel since Israel’s inception, would have an AWACS system superior to the Grumman E-2 Hawkeyes the Israeli Air Force had. In the U.S. there were those who opposed selling arms to countries hostile to Israel and those that opposed all foreign military sales. The sale went through despite the strong opposition. Saudi Arabia received the 5 E-3s, and 8 refueling aircraft, between June 1986 and September 1987.

The E-3 AWACS also had critics who described it as a very expensive piece of hardware that doesn’t work. A 1983 book by the Fund for Constitutional Government, More Bucks Less Bang: How the Pentagon Buys Ineffective Weapons, contains four articles that claim the AWACS doesn’t work.[ix]

During Operation Desert Storm, 1991, E-3 AWACS controlled allied aircraft and provided radar coverage over Iraq.[x] According to Major General John A. Corder, “In the beginning, they would find enemy planes and put our people in the best position to start the fight. … When the Iraqis stopped flying, the AWACS became a traffic advisory agency.”[xi] Allied planes were flying over 2,000 sorties a day so this was a big job. Its mission also included coordinating SCUD hunts. USAF Systems Command provided special communications equipment to the Saudi Arabian AWACS so it could communicate with U.S. aircraft despite Iraqi jamming.[xii]

After Desert Storm ended Allied aircraft flew Operation Southern Watch and Northern Watch missions. E-3s directed Allied aircraft against air and ground targets.

USAF E-3As flew over 500 Operation Allied Force sorties. RAF E-3Ds flew over 90 sorties. An AWACS directed a USAF F-16 to a Yugoslavian MiG-29 on May 4, 1999. The F-16 shot down the MiG. On one mission an E-3A supported strike aircraft during a successful attack on a SA-6 site.

In the wake of the September 11, 2001 attacks the U.S. began Operation Noble Eagle. These were missions flown to over America to prevent similar attacks. On October 11, 2001 5 NATO AWACS flew to the US to fly Noble Eagle missions. A Boeing 707 flew crew members and support personnel to the US.

They flew Operation Odyssey Dawn and Operation Unified Protector missions. E-3s flew Operation Iraqi Freedom missions. They are flying Enduring Freedom missions. The USAF has kept E-3s in almost continuous operations over Southwest Asia this century. RAF Sentries began flying missions against Afghanistan on October 9, 2001. An E-3D flew a 14.5-hour mission on January 4, 2002. RAF Squadrons 8 and 23, Sentry squadrons, earned the Battle Honor IRAQ 2003.

A NATO AWACS monitored the airspace over Rome during Pope John Paul II’s funeral. AWACS supported humanitarian relief operations following Hurricanes Rita and Katrina. Two RAF AWACS provided surveillance during the 2006 Olympics in Torino, Italy. On August 28, 2009 an E-3 was damaged while landing at Nellis Air Force Base. E-3s supported the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver. On July 10, 2011 an E-3D coordinated the rescue of a ship in distress that had 60 people on board. NATO E-3s monitored Russian movements in the Ukraine in March, 2014.

In 2005 the E-3s mission capable rate was 81%. In Fiscal Year 2016 the E-3’s mission capable rates were; E-3B 69.2%, E-3C 75.9%, E-3G 79.3%.

[i] Air Force Fact Sheet, E-3 Sentry (AWACS), https://www.af.mil/About-Us/Fact-Sheets/Display/Article/104504/e-3-sentry-awacs, last accessed, 7/21/2018.

[ii] NATO AWACS, E-3D, https://awacs.nato.int/organisation/awacs-fleet/e3d.aspx, last accessed, 7/21/2018.

[iii] Americas War Machine by Tom Gervasi, © 1984 by Tom Gervasi and Bob Adelman.

[iv] Air Force Fact Sheet, E-3 Sentry (AWACS), https://www.af.mil/About-Us/Fact-Sheets/Display/Article/104504/e-3-sentry-awacs, last accessed, 7/21/2018.

[v] Air Force Fact Sheet, E-3 Sentry (AWACS), https://www.af.mil/About-Us/Fact-Sheets/Display/Article/104504/e-3-sentry-awacs, last accessed, 7/21/2018.

[vi] NATO AWACS, Second NATO AWACS retires, https://awacs.nato.int/media-center/press-releases/2018/second-nato-awacs-retires.aspx, last accessed, 7/21/2018.

[vii] Air Force Fact Sheet, E-3 Sentry (AWACS), https://www.af.mil/About-Us/Fact-Sheets/Display/Article/104504/e-3-sentry-awacs, last accessed, 7/21/2018.

[viii] AWACS Jet Fails Crucial Defense Test by James Coates, Chicago Tribune, September 20, 1981.

[ix] More Bucks Less Bang: How the Pentagon Buys Ineffective Weapons, Editor Dina Rasor, © 1983 by The Fund for Constitutional Government. The AWACS articles are: AWACS Jet Fails Crucial Defense Test, by James Coates, Chicago Tribune, September 20, 1981; The Real AWACS Secret: It Doesn’t Work, by Alexander Cockburn, Wall Street Journal, September 24, 1981; A Maverick View of AWACS—It’s Less Than a Marvel, by Stephen Webbe, Christian Science Monitor, September 29, 1981; A Further Look at Whether AWACS Works, by Alexasnder Cockburn, Wall Street Journal, October 22, 1981.

[x] Airpower in the Gulf, by James P. Coyne, © 1992 by The Air Force Association.

[xi] Airpower in the Gulf, by James P. Coyne, © 1992 by The Air Force Association.

[xii] Airpower in the Gulf, by James P. Coyne, © 1992 by The Air Force Association.

E-8C Joint Stars (JSTARS)

The E-8C Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System provides ground surveillance. It is a modified Boeing 707-300 airframe. It has a canoe-shaped radar dome under its forward fuselage. This radar dome houses a 24-foot (7.3 meters) long side-looing phased array antenna.[i]

The E-8C’s scheduled deployment date was to be in 1997. The USAF deployed its two developmental E-8Cs for Operation Desert Storm. Every night during Operation Desert Storm a JSTARS would fly a mission that lasted 10-12 hours.[ii] On the night of January 29, 1991 an Iraqi armored division moved into Saudi Arabia. JSTARS detected over 60 vehicles moving towards Saudi Arabia. The E-8 vectored two A-10s and an AC-130 onto the armored convoy and is staging area. The attack destroyed 71 vehicles. The Iraqis added additional forces to this incursion. US Marines, Saudi National Guardsmen, and Qatari tanks engaged the Iraqi forces around the town of Khafji. The battle lasted two days. The Iraqis who weren’t killed or captured withdrew. Coalition forces destroyed 200 Iraqi vehicles. The action wasn’t all one sided. An Iraqi surface to air missile shot down an AC-130, killing the crew of 14. An A-10 mistakenly struck a Marine light armored vehicle and killed 7 Marines. The Iraqis also captured two U.S. army soldiers. JSTARS were also able to backtrack the paths of Iraqi vehicles. If these paths led to a supply dump or other targets then coalition aircraft would be sortied against these places. When the Coalition ground offensive began the JSTARS detected an Iraqi blocking force forming to confront the 3d Egyptian Mechanized Division. The E-8 directed air strikes that broke up this Iraqi force.[iii] On the night of February 13 a JSTARS detected an Iraqi division moving south with 224 vehicles. Coalition aircraft smashed the division. When the Iraqi forces attempted to retreat from Kuwait City JSTARS directed Coalition aircraft and turned the road into the “Highway of death”. JSTARS also searched for SCUD transport vehicles and passed the information to F-15E Strike Eagles. JSTARS helped find targets for Army artillery. In one case JSTARS helped US VII Corps spot and destroy an Iraqi SA-8 SAM site. When Coalition forces were positioning themselves for the “Hail Mary” move JSTARS reported there was no Iraqi response. JSTARS also supported Operation Join Endeavor in December 1995, two years before the E-8C’s initial operating capacity.

As of September 2015, E-8Cs have logged over a million combat hours. These hours include Enduring Freedom, Iraqi Freedom, New Dawn, Odyssey Dawn, and Unified Protector missions. On May 13, 2009 a ruptured fuel tank caused $2.5 million in damage. The mishap was attributed to human error.


[i] Air Force Fact Sheet, E-8C Joint Stars, https://www.af.mil/About-Us/Fact-Sheets/Display/Article/104507/e-8c-joint-stars/, last accessed 7/24/2018.

[ii] Airpower in the Gulf, by James P. Coyne, © 1982 by The Air Force Association.

[iii] Airpower in the Gulf, by James P. Coyne, © 1982 by The Air Force Association.

KC-135 Stratotanker

The KC-135 is an aerial refueling aircraft based on the Boeing 367-80 airframe. The Air Force purchased the first 29 of 732 KC-135As in 1954. Boeing delivered the first KC-135 in August 1956 and the last KC-135 in June 1965. A few of these were converted for use as EC-135 airborne command posts and C-135 VIP transports. The Air Force had 417 of these tankers modified with CFM-56 engines and changed the designation of these Stratotankers to KC-135Rs and KC-135Ts. The CFM-56 engines meant the KC-135s cost 25% less to operate, 25% more fuel efficient, and were 96% quieter. The CFM-56 engine enables the KC-135 to offload 50% more fuel. As of May 14, 2018, there are 396 KC-135s in the USAF, Air National Guard, and Air Force Reserve inventories.[i]

The first KC-135A loss occurred on June 27, 1958. The flight was intended to set a world speed record from New York to London. KC-135A, serial number 56-3599, crashed on takeoff and killed all 15 on board. On January 17, 1966 a KC-135A collided with a B-52G during a mid-air refueling over Palomares, Spain. The crash killed all four KC-135A crew members and three of the seven B-52 crew members. One nuclear weapon fell into the sea and three fell near Palmoares. The conventional explosives on two of the bombs exploded and caused radiological contamination. This caused an international incident. In 2015 the U.S. signed a statement of intent to finish the radioactive cleanup and take the contaminated soil to a site in the United States.[ii] This incident inspired the 1967 movie, The Day the Fish Came Out.[iii]

Since they were purchased KC-135s have participated in virtually every major USAF operation. During the Vietnam Conflict basing aircraft in the Republic of Vietnam was risky because the Viet Cong could damage or destroy these aircraft on the ground. Some aircraft were based in Vietnam but many others were based in other countries. In 1964 the Strategic Air Command (SAC) based four KC-135As at Clark Air Base, Philippines. On June 9 KC-135s performed their first combat mission. They refueled eight F-100D Super Sabres that were on a mission against Pathet Lao anti-aircraft positions in Laos. SAC withdrew the KC-135s before the end of the month. KC-135s returned on August 5 after the Gulf of Tonkin incident. KC-135s became an integral part of the mission for aircraft flying missions in Southeast Asia but were based outside South Vietnam. The B-52 Arc Light missions against Viet Cong strongholds was a 2,000-mile round trip mission from Anderson AFB, Guam. KC-135s enabled these heavily bomb laden B-52s to complete these missions.

On November 22, 1965 an F-105 Thunderchief was having a rapid fuel loss over North Vietnam. A KC-135, commanded by Captain Ross C. Evers, flew over North Vietnamese airspace and refueled the Thunderchief so it could make it back to base.

On May 31, 1967 Major John H Casteel and his crew were carrying out routine refueling of two USAF F-104 Starfighters over the Gulf of Tonkin. His KC-135 was modified with a boom-drogue adapter so it could refuel Starfighters. Some U.S. Navy aircraft in the Gulf were low on fuel. Naval and Marine aircraft use the drogue method of refueling so Major Casteel was able to refuel these naval aircraft. The KC-135 refueled two KA-3 tankers, two F-8 Crusaders, and two F-4 Phantom IIs. For a short time during this “save” the KC-135 was re-refueling a KA-3, which was re-fueling another KA-3, which was refueling an F-8. This mission probably saved 6 U.S. Navy aircraft. The KC-135 crew earned the MacKay Trophy for the most extraordinary flight of 1967. It was the first aerial tanker crew to earn the MacKay Trophy.[iv]

In January 1968 North Korea seized the USS Pueblo[v] and North Vietnam launched the Tet Offensive. KC-135s supported the B-52’s deployment and tactical aircraft patrols in response to the USS Pueblo seizure. With the Tet Offensive and subsequent siege of Khe Sanh the authorized KC-135 sorties increased from 53 to 66 per day. The tanker sorties didn’t reach this level because President Johnson halted all bombing north of the 19th Parallel in April. On November 1 he halted all bombing of North Vietnam. In 1972, in anticipation of a North Vietnamese offensive, the USAF sent additional KC-135s to the region. During the Vietnam Conflict KC-135s flew 194,687 sorties, made 813,878 air refueling, and transferred 1.4 billion gallons of fuel. The USAF lost 4 KC-130s to accidents.[vi]

KC-135A, serial number 55-3133A, crashed on landing at Wake Island on September 24, 1968. The aircraft was flying to Andersen AFB, Guam when it developed engine problems. There were 11 fatalities and 45 survivors. On October 1, 1968 a KC-135A, serial number 55-3138 crashed on takeoff at U-Tapao, Thailand. All 4 crew members died. On October 22, 1968 a KC-135A, serial number 61-0301, crashed into a mountain near Ching Chuan Kang Air Base, Taiwan killing all 6 onboard. Wind shear caused another KC-135A, serial number 56-3629, to crash near Ching Chuan Kang Air Base on December 19, 1969. All 4 crew members died in the crash.

On October 1, 1985 Israeli F-15s struck a PLO base in Tunis, Tunisia. Israeli Boeing 707 tankers refueled the F-15s so they could complete this mission. The raid destroyed some buildings and killed 77 PLO fighters. Israeli Defense Minister Yitzak Rabin said the raid was flown to show the PLO they could never be beyond the reach of the Israeli Defense Force.[vii]

On the night of April 14-15, 1986, the U.S. launched Operation El Dorado Canyon. This was a joint U.S. Navy – USAF operation. The Air Force part of the operation involved 24 F-111Fs flying from Upper Heyford, UK, then around the Iberian Peninsula, bombing Libya, then returning to Upper Heyford. The Air Force used 5 EF-111As and 29 aerial tankers. The tanker fleet consisted of 19 KC-10A Extenders and 10 KC-135A Stratotankers.

The USAF deployed 256 KC-135s for Operation Desert Storm in 1991. After Operation Desert Storm KC-135s flew Operations Northern Watch and Southern Watch missions.

In Operation Allied Force a USAF KC-135 refueled two A-10s in an area where the KC-135 could have been subject to air-air or ground-air threats. This mission was part of the successful rescue operation of downed F-117A pilot, Lt. Col. Dale Zelko.

In Operation Enduring Freedom KC-135s, including those from Singapore and Turkey, flew missions. A KC-135 med-evaced George Benson, 2nd mate on the USN Watson, who lost a leg in an accident. A KC-135 was the first aircraft to have an all women crew on a combat air refueling mission. The crew offloaded 63,000 pounds of fuel and refueled 10 F-16s over Afghanistan. In January and February 2013 C135-FRs of the French Air Force and USAF KC-135s flew refueling missions over Mali. French Air Force C135-FRs have been refueling aircraft as part of their effort to defeat Islamic State forces.

A ground accident at RAF Akrotiri, Cyprus involving a KC-135 caused $2.1 million in damage on April 4, 2003. On August 4, 2003 lightning damaged a KC-135 while the Stratotanker was on an Enduring Freedom mission. A KD-135 caught fire on an Enduring Freedom mission on September 26, 2006. Air turbulence caused injuries to 38 passengers, one soldier was paralyzed, aboard a KC-135R. The worst Enduring Freedom/Iraqi Freedom mishap happened on May 3, 2013 when a KC-135 crashed over northern Kyrgyzstan. The crash killed the three crew members on board; Technical Sergeant Herman Mackey III, Captain Victoria Ann Pickney, and Captain Mark Tyler Voss.[viii]

On January 17, 2006 an F-15 crashed into the Pacific Ocean near Kadena AB, Okinawa. A KC-135 remained in contact with the pilot until the pilot was rescued. KC-135s supported the evacuation of U.S. civilians from Lebanon in July 2006. As part of Operation Noble Endeavor KC-135s participated in providing security for the NATO summit in Romania in 2008. On April 5, 2009 a KC-135 transported kidnap victim and UN worker John Solecki from Pakistan to Ramstein AB, Germany. The next day a KC-135 refueled two F-16s as the F-16s trailed a Cessna 172 that was stolen in Canada. A KC-135 assisted in the rescue of an F-16 pilot who crashed into the Pacific Ocean. On February 11, 2017 a KC-135 coordinated the rescue of 14 people stranded off the British coast.

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) has also used the KC-135s. The first 3 KC-135s NASA used were Air Force owned. Then NASA acquired a KC-135A, number NASA 930, in 1973. NASA flew this aircraft and its successor, a KC-135 number NASA 931. NASA used them for astronaut training. The aircraft would execute a maneuver, called a parabola, so the trainees could experience weightlessness. During a parabola those inside the aircraft would experience about 25 seconds of weightlessness. NASA 930 performed over 58,000 parabolas before NASA retired it in 1995. NASA acquired NASA 931 in 1994 and retired it on October 31, 2004.[ix] The parabolas gave these NASA planes their nicknames, “Vomit Comet” and “Weightless Wonder”.

[i] Air Force Fact Sheet, KC-135 Stratotanker, last accessed 7/29/2018.

[ii] History.com, Remembering the Palomares H-bomb incident, by Evan Andrews, January 15, 2016, https://www.history.com/news/the-palomares-h-bomb-incident, last accessed 7/28/2018.

[iii] United States Movie Database, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0061553/?ref_=nv_sr_1, last accessed, 7/29/2018.

[iv] Air Force News, Vietnam the first ‘tanker war’, by Ellery D. Wallwork, published 6/1/2009, http://www.amc.af.mil/News/Article-Display/Article/147242/vietnam-the-first-tanker-war/, last accessed 7/28/2018.

[v] Petty Officer Duane Hodges was killed by North Korean fire. The other 82 crew members were held until December 23, 1968. North Korea still has the USS Pueblo.

[vi] Air Force News, Vietnam the first ‘tanker war’, by Ellery D. Wallwork, published 6/1/2009, http://www.amc.af.mil/News/Article-Display/Article/147242/vietnam-the-first-tanker-war/, last accessed 7/28/2018.

[vii] Fighters Over Israel, by Lon Nordeen, © 1990.

[viii] Af.mil, Investigation board determines cause of KC-135 crash in May, March 14, 2014, https://www.af.mil/News/Article-Display/Article/473716/investigation-board-determines-cause-of-kc-135-crash-in-may/, last accessed 7/31/2018.

[ix] NASA.gov, Zero-Gravity Plane on Final Flight, October 29, 2004, https://www.nasa.gov/vision/space/preparingtravel/kc135onfinal.html, last accessed, 8/6/2018.

EC-135

The EC-135 was an airborne command and control aircraft. The Air Force converted some of its KC-135s to EC-135s. The first EC-135 mission occurred on February 3, 1961. These aircraft were nicknamed Looking Glass because their mission mirrored ground-based command, control, and communications (CCC). There was one Looking Glass aircraft airborne at all times. These missions continued until July 24, 1990. These aircraft flew 281,000 accident-free flying hours.[i] The USAF was not the only air force to use 707s as a command post. The Israeli Air Force used two Boeing 707s in the raid on Entebbe on July 4, 1976. They used one as a command post and planned to use another as a field hospital.[ii]


[i] Federation of American Scientists, EC-135, Looking Glass, https://fas.org/nuke/guide/usa/c3i/ec-135.htm, last accessed 7/28/2018.

[ii] The Guardian, ‘We thought this would be the end of us’: the raid on Entebbe, 40 years on, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/jun/25/entebbe-raid-40-years-on-israel-palestine-binyamin-netanyahu-jonathan-freedland, last accessed 7/30/2018.

OC-135

In 1989 the U.S. reintroduced the Open Skies Treaty. Under the treaty unarmed aircraft of signature countries fly over the other signature countries for observation flights. The USAF modified three OC-135Bs for the mission. The Open Skies missions began in 1993. The first OC-135B is in permanent storage. The other two OC-135Bs, which were delivered in 1996, still fly missions.[i]


[i] AF.mil fact sheet, OC-135B Open Skies, Published February 01, 2001, current as of April 2014, https://www.af.mil/About-Us/Fact-Sheets/Display/Article/104496/oc-135b-open-skies/, last accessed 8/4/2018.

RC-135

RC-135s are reconnaissance versions of C-135s. These aircraft have different names for each variant. Their history also involves a lot of intrigue. The RC-135S Cobra Ball is a rapidly deployable aircraft that flies on high priority missions at the direction of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Cobra Ball collects optical and electronic data on missiles. From their initial deployment in March 1972 Cobra Ball operated on a 24-hour alert status out of Shemya AFB, Alaska.[i] In 1994 the RC-135Ss were moved to Offutt AFB, Nebraska.[ii] On September 1, 1983 Soviet Sukhoi Su-15 pilot, then Major Gennadi Osipovitch[iii], shot down a Korean Air Lines Boeing 747 with the ironic flight number KAL007. The shootdown killed all 269 people on board the jetliner. U.S. opinion was divided into two camps. Some believed the Soviet Union deliberately shot down a civilian jetliner. Others believed KAL007 was either on a spy mission or the U.S. was using the off course 747 as a “target of opportunity” to test Soviet reaction times. The Air Force Intelligence Service (AFIS) theorized the Soviet pilots misidentified the Korean Air Lines 747 as Cobra Ball. Cobra Ball had flown a mission in that area earlier in the night. The incident and AFIS’s role in analyzing it was dramatized in the 1989 docudrama Tailspin: Behind the Korean Airliner Tragedy[iv]. The AFIS theory was generally believed to be accurate until after the fall of The Soviet Union. Colonel Osipovitch admitted he knew he was shooting down a 747. On March 2, 2003 four North Korean fighters shadowed a Cobra Ball for 20 minutes. One of the fighters locked on to the RC-135S. Cobra Ball had to abort its mission.

RC-135U Combat Sent provides strategic reconnaissance information to senior DoD leaders, including the President of the United States. The USAF has two RC-135Us in its inventory.

RC-135V/W Rivet Joint provides near real time collection, analysis and dissemination capabilities. Rivet Joint aircraft have been involved in every significant U.S. conflict from Vietnam to the present. They have been in continuous combat operations over Southwest Asia for over 25 years.

USAF RC-135s supported Pakistani forces in Operation Vengeance in March 2004. On August 31, 2006 an RC-135 participated in the search and recovery of a crashed Royal Netherlands Air Force F-16 in Afghanistan.

On July 18, 2014 a RC-135 found it was being tracked by Russian ground radar and a Russian fighter was flying on an intercept course. The RC-135 flew away and overflew Swedish airspace in the process. On April 7, 2015 a Russian Su-27 flew within 20 feet (7 meters) of an RC-135 over the Baltic Sea. On January 25, 2016 a Russian Su-27 flew so close to a RC-135 it disturbed the controllability of the RC-135. On June 7, 2016 a Chinese Air Force J-10 approached a RC-135 in an unsafe manner.


[i] Shemya is near the west end of the Aleutian Island Chain.

[ii] AF.mil fact sheet RC-135S COBRA BALL, https://www.af.mil/About-Us/Fact-Sheets/Display/Article/104498/rc-135s-cobra-ball, last accessed, 8/4/2018.

[iii] Genadi Osipovich retired as a colonel.

[iv] One inaccuracy in the movie was the depiction of the AFIS offices. They were portrayed as posh area complete with a pool table. In the 1980s AFIS offices could best be described as a dump.

WC-135 Constant Phoenix

WC-135 Constant Phoenix collects particulate and gaseous effluences and debris in the atmosphere. WC-135s began operations in December 1965. It is the only aircraft in the USAF that conducts air sampling. It carries out air-sampling missions to monitor compliance with the Limited Nuclear Test Ban Treaty of 1963. It tracked radioactive debris from the Chernobyl nuclear plant disaster in 1986.[i] In 2011 A WC-135 flew 51,000 nautical miles to support earthquake relief efforts in Japan. In January 2016 a WC-135 checked around North Korea for signs of a thermonuclear explosion.


[i] AF.mil Fact Sheet, WC-135 Constant Phoenix, published May 27, 2005, https://www.af.mil/About-Us/Fact-Sheets/Display/Article/104494/wc-135-constant-phoenix, last accessed 8/5/2018.

VC-137C

In October 1962 the USAF purchased a VC-137 Stratoliner as a presidential aircraft. Other VC-137s joined the presidential fleet. One VC-137C was designated Special Air Mission (SAM) 26000. President Lyndon B. Johnson took the oath of office on this aircraft after the death of President John F. Kennedy. This was also the aircraft that was flying President Richard M. Nixon when his resignation became effective. VC-137s were in the presidential fleet until 1998.

Boeing 707

The KC-135As weren’t the only Boeing 707 variant used by NASA. NASA used a 720-027, in a crash test to test a fuel retardant. The test left the 720, registration number N833NA, damaged beyond repair on December 1, 1984.

A Dutch 707 flew in 37 tons of supplies to support Operation Allied Force. A Boeing 707 carried former Afghan king Mohammed Zahir Shah and his entourage out of Italy on his way back to Afghanistan after the Taliban government was overthrown. A Royal Australian Air Force 707 crashed on October 29, 1991, 5 died in the crash.

© 2018 Robert Sacchi

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    • Robert Sacchi profile imageAUTHOR

      Robert Sacchi 

      7 months ago

      Mary Norton, thank you for reading and commenting. I am glad you found the article interesting. The race in military technology has probably been going on since one tribe figured out how to sharpen a rock. It's not going to end. Knowledge grows at a geometric rate so it will accelerate. During the Cold War the argument was if America developed a new system the Soviets would develop a comparable system within 5 years. The counter argument was if America doesn't develop this new system the Soviets will develop a comparable system within 5 years.

    • Robert Sacchi profile imageAUTHOR

      Robert Sacchi 

      7 months ago

      You're welcome and thank you for reading and commenting. It is amazing how many uses they've found for this airframe. It is also amazing the many different uses the military, and other agencies, found for aircraft.

    • aesta1 profile image

      Mary Norton 

      7 months ago from Ontario, Canada

      I am fascinated how these aircraft played its role in many of the events we've read about. You gave me an appreciation of how important these planes are to our safety and that of our world. What worries me is the continuing race as to which country gets to have the most powerful plane. It never stops.

    • Peggy W profile image

      Peggy Woods 

      7 months ago from Houston, Texas

      It is fascinating learning about these different aircraft and the things that can be accomplished by flying them. Nice to know that some of those ones equipped with radar and owned by the United Nations were flying over our country in a protective manner after 9-11.

      I often wondered how we could find out about nuclear testing in North Korea as an example if we did not have eyes on the ground. Now I know that one of those airplanes can actually sample the air and detect things like that. Seismic activity can also probably be detected in other manners.

      Thanks for another really informative article!

    • Robert Sacchi profile imageAUTHOR

      Robert Sacchi 

      7 months ago

      Thank you for reading and commenting. I always had an interest in aircraft. These 707 variants are often mentioned in military releases. A good part of the information in this article I learned in the process of writing the article. It's like "National Treasure" where one piece of information leads to another. As you might have guessed from the size, this article really snowballed. Considering the 707's airframe's extensive use this article is likely to get bigger as time goes by.

    • FlourishAnyway profile image

      FlourishAnyway 

      7 months ago from USA

      Your extensive knowledge of aircraft is exceptional. When and how did you first develop the interest?

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