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Boeing EC-135
EC-135E nicknamed "Bird of Prey" at the National Museum of the United States Air Force
Role Tracking and Telemetry Platform
Manufacturer Boeing
Retired 2000
Primary user United States Air Force
Developed from C-135 Stratolifter
Variants KC-135 Stratotanker

The Boeing EC-135 is a version of the C-135 Stratolifter, modified to operate on several different U.S. Air Force programs.




Advanced Range Instrumentation Aircraft

The Advanced Range Instrumentation Aircraft are EC-135Bs modified C-135B cargo aircraft and EC-18B (former American Airlines 707-320) passenger aircraft that provided tracking and telemetry information to support the US space program in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

During the early 1960s, NASA and the Department of Defense (DoD) needed a very mobile tracking and telemetry platform to support the Apollo space program and other unmanned space flight operations. In a joint project, NASA and the DoD contracted with the McDonnell Douglas and the Bendix Corporations to modify eight Boeing C-135 Stratolifter cargo aircraft into Apollo / Range Instrumentation Aircraft (A/RIA). Equipped with a steerable seven-foot antenna dish in its distinctive "Droop Snoot" or "Snoopy Nose", the EC-135N A/RIA became operational in January 1968, and was often known as the Jimmy Durante of the Air Force. The Air Force Eastern Test Range at Patrick AFB, Florida, maintained and operated the A/RIA until the end of the Apollo program in 1972, when the USAF renamed it the Advanced Range Instrumentation Aircraft (ARIA).

Transferred to the 4950th Test Wing at Wright-Patterson AFB, Ohio, in December 1975 as part of an overall consolidation of large test and evaluation aircraft, the ARIA fleet underwent numerous conversions - including a re-engining that changed the EC-135N to the EC-135E. In 1994, the ARIA fleet relocated to Edwards AFB, California, as part of the 412th Test Wing. However, taskings for the ARIA dwindled because of high costs and improved satellite technology, and the USAF transferred the aircraft to other programs such as J-STARS.

On November 3, 2000, a flight crew from the Air Force Flight Test Center delivered the last EC-135E, (AF Serial Number 60-0374 - nicknamed "The Bird of Prey"), with full Prime Mission Electronic Equipment (PMEE), to the National Museum of the United States Air Force, at Wright-Patterson AFB near Dayton, Ohio. Over its thirty-two year career, the ARIA supported the United States space program, gathered telemetry, verified international treaties, and supported cruise missile, ballistic missile defense tests, and the Space Shuttle.[1]

Looking Glass

"Operation Looking Glass" provided at least 11 EC-135C command post aircraft to the Commander in Chief, Strategic Air Command (CINCSAC), which were either based at its headquarters at Offutt AFB, Nebraska, or at Ellsworth AFB, South Dakota. All aircraft have been retired or repurposed.

The U.S. nuclear strategy depends on its ability to command, control, and communicate with its nuclear forces under all conditions. An essential element of that ability is Looking Glass; its crew and staff ensure there is always an aircraft ready to direct bombers and missiles from the air should ground-based command centers be destroyed or rendered inoperable. Looking Glass is intended to guarantee that U.S. strategic forces will act only in the manner dictated by the President. It took the nickname "Looking Glass" because the mission mirrored ground-based command, control, and communications. Besides being the program name, "Looking Glass" is the official name for the "C" model aircraft of the EC-135. It has a crew of at least 15, including at least one or more general officers.

The Strategic Air Command (SAC) began the Looking Glass mission on February 3, 1961 and Looking Glass aircraft were continuously airborne 24 hours a day for over 29 years, accumulating more than 281,000 accident-free flying hours. On July 24, 1990, "The Glass" ceased continuous airborne alert, but remained on ground or airborne alert 24 hours a day.

On June 1, 1992, SAC was deactivated and replaced by USSTRATCOM, which now controls the Looking Glass.[2][3] On October 1, 1998, the Navy's E-6 Mercury TACAMO replaced the USAF's EC-135C in the Looking Glass mission.

Silk Purse

Operation Silk Purse program provided four EC-135H command post aircraft to the Commander in Chief, U.S. European Command (USCINCEUR), which were based at RAF Mildenhall in the United Kingdom. All four aircraft were subsequently retired.

Scope Light

Operation Scope Light provided five EC-135J/P command post aircraft to the Commander in Chief, U.S. Atlantic Command (CINCLANT), which were based at Langley AFB, VA. All five aircraft were subsequently retired.

Blue Eagle

Operation Blue Eagle provided five EC-135J/P command post aircraft to the Commander in Chief, U.S. Pacific Command (USCINCPAC), which were based at Hickam AFB, HI. All five aircraft were subsequently retired.


Operation Nightwatch provided three EC-135J command post aircraft to the President of the United States which were based at Andrews AFB, MD. All three aircraft were transferred to other ABNCP missions.

Nightwatch was initiated in the mid-1960s utilizing the three EC-135J aircraft, modified from KC-135Bs, as command post aircraft. The three Nightwatch aircraft were ready to fly the President and the National Command Authority (NCA) out of Washington in the event of a nuclear attack. The E-4 aircraft (a modified Boeing 747-200) came on line with the Nightwatch program in 1974 replacing the EC-135s on this mission.[4]

Variant summary

  • EC-135A - KC-135A modified for airborne national command post role
  • EC-135B - C-135B modified with large nose for ARIA mission
  • EC-135C - KC-135B modified for airborne command post role, "Looking Glass"
  • EC-135E - re-engined EC-135N
  • EC-135G - KC-135A modified for airborne national command post role
  • EC-135H - KC-135A modified for airborne national command post role, "Silk Purse"
  • EC-135J - KC-135B modified for airborne national command post role, "Nightwatch"
  • EC-135K - KC-135A modified for deployment control duties
  • EC-135L - KC-135A modified for radio relay and amplitude modulation dropout capability
  • EC-135N - ARIA aircraft with "Snoopy Nose"
  • EC-135J/P - KC-135A modified for airborne command post role, "Blue Eagle" and "Scope Light"
  • EC-135Y - NKC-135 reconfigured as C3 aircraft for Commander-in-Chief, United States Central Command


  1. ^ This section uses public domain text from the National Museum of the United States Air Force.
  2. ^ E-6B Airborne Command Post (ABNCP)
  3. ^ FAS WMD page
  4. ^ C-135 Variants - Part 5 by Jennings Heilig
  • Reference for the Variant Summary list: DoD 4120.14L, Model Designation of Military Aerospace Vehicles, May 12, 2004


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