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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
Introduction 1968
Retired 2000
Primary user United States Air Force
Developed from C-135 Stratolifter

The Boeing EC-135 was a command and control version of the C-135 Stratolifter. Modified for Operation Looking Glass mission, during the Cold War, EC-135 were airborne 24 hours a day to serve as flying command platforms for the military in the event of nuclear war. EC-135N served as tracking aircraft for the Apollo space program.


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.

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

Officially known as "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 (1993–1998) Operated by the 34th Air Refueling Squadron (1961-1963 with EC-135A's}, {1963-1966 with EC-135C's); (38th Strategic Reconnaissance Squadron (1966–1970); 2d Airborne Command and Control Squadron (1970–1994); 7th Airborne Command and Control Squadron (1994–1998), Barksdale AFB, Louisiana operated by the 913th Air Refueling Squadron (1963–1970), Ellsworth AFB, South Dakota operated by the 4th Airborne Command & Control Squadron (Looking Glass, South Dakota, Wyoming, Montana missile silo coverage, Western Radio Relay 1970-1991), Grissom AFB, Indiana operated by the 3d Airborne Command & Control Squadron (Looking Glass 1970-1974/Eastern Radio Relay 1970-199-), or at Westover AFB, Massachusetts operated by the 99th Air Refueling Squadron(1963–1970). Other EC-135 Aircraft (EC-135A / EC-135G / EC-135L & Bases supporting the Looking Glass missions (Communications Relay and Minuteman Airborne Missile Launch Centers) were Minot AFB, North Dakota operated by the 906th Air Refueling Squadron(1963–1970) (Note: Ellsworth AFB maintained EC-135 aircraft on Satellite Alert at Minot AFB to cover the North Dakota missile silos), Grissom AFB, Indiana operated by the 70th Air Refueling Squadron (1975–1993), Lockbourne AFB, Ohio operated by the 301st Air Refueling Squadron (1963–1970 Eastern Radio Relay). 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. The EC-135A flew the Command Post mission until EC-135C were delivered starting in 1963. The aircraft were delivered to Offutt AFB and as well as one aircraft to each of the Stateside Numbered Air Force Headquarters - Second Air Force at Barksdale AFB, LA; Eighth Air Force at Westover AFB, MA; and Fifteenth Air Force at March AFB CA. EC-135's flew all the missions except one, when an E-4B was tested on an operational mission, flying a double sortie as the replacement aircraft could not launch due to weather. About a week after the flight, Washington deleted the funds for additional E-4 aircraft.

On June 1, 1992, SAC was inactivated and replaced by the United States Strategic Command, 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, U.S. European Command (USEUCOM), 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 - purpose built C-135 variant 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 "Cover All"
  • 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


  • On 13 June 1971, USAF EC-135N, (AF Serial Number 61-0331), of 4950th Test Wing, Space and Missile Systems Organization (SAMSO), Wright-Patterson AFB, OH disappeared while en route from Pago Pago, American Samoa to Hickam AFB, HI after monitoring a French atmospheric test conducted on the previous day. The aircraft disappeared about 70 miles south of Hawaii near Palmyra Island. Twelve military personnel and twelve civilians died. Cause of the mishap is unknown. Only small bits of wreckage were found.[5]
  • On 14 September 1977, USAF EC-135K, (AF Serial Number 62-3536), crashed on takeoff from Kirtland Air Force Base, NM for a Higher-Headquarters Directed (HHD) mission. After a long crew duty period, the crew started its takeoff roll at a few minutes prior to midnight. The aircraft impacted the ground 8 km (5 miles) east of the departure base because it lacked sufficient power to either climb above or turn to avoid rapidly rising terrain in that area. All 20 occupants of this Tactical Air Command (TAC) operated aircraft were killed in the crash and subsequent fire at about 8,500 feet up the Manzano Mountain Range east of Albuquerque, NM.[6]
  • On 2 January 1980, USAF EC-135P, (AF Serial Number 58-0007), was destroyed on the ground at Hampton-Langley AFB, VA when an electrical short occurred in the water injection tank heater wiring on the J-57-P/F-59W equipped aircraft. There were no injuries as the Tactical Air Command (TAC) aircraft was unoccupied at the time of the mishap.[7]
  • On 6 May 1981, USAF EC-135N, (AF Serial Number 61-0318), crashed during a scheduled Advanced Range Instrumented Aircraft (ARIA) navigator and Primary Mission Electronic Equipment (PMEE) training mission from Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, OH. For an unexplained reason, the aircraft pitch trim was moved to the full nose-down position, which exceeded the ability of the autopilot to control, and the aircraft pitched over abruptly. The aircraft commander was occupying the right pilot seat and a passenger, his wife, occupied the left pilot seat. The abrupt pitch over caused the generators to trip off line and the loss of AC electrical power prevented the pitch trim from being operated normally. The aircraft became uncontrollable and exploded at about 1,500 ft MSL. The crash occurred near Walkersville, MD at 10:50L. All seventeen crew members and four passengers on board the aircraft were killed.[8]
  • On 29 May 1992, USAF EC-135J, (AF Serial Number 62-3584), landed long at Fayetteville-Pope AFB, NC and overshot the runway. The undercarriage collapsed and the fuselage broke in two. Although none of the 14 occupants were seriously injured, the aircraft was written off as damaged beyond repair and the remains were removed to Davis-Monthan AFB, AZ for disposal.[9]
  • On 2 September 1997, USAF EC-135C, (AF Serial Number 61-8053), was heavily damaged on landing at Fayetteville-Pope AFB, NC when the nose wheel collapsed. None of the 11 occupants was injured significantly, but the Air Combat Command (ACC) aircraft was 32 years and 10 months old at the time of the accident and was written off as damaged beyond repair.[10]


The Boeing EC-135N Stratoliner at the Museum of Aviation in Warner Robins, Georgia.

  • EC-135E (AF Serial Number 60-0374 - nicknamed "The Bird of Prey") is on display at the National Museum of the United States Air Force, at Wright-Patterson AFB near Dayton, Ohio. The aircraft is a former Apollo / Range Instrumentation Aircraft (ARIA), and is displayed in the museum's outside Air Park. The aircraft was flown to the museum on November 3, 2000, by a flight crew from the Air Force Flight Test Center (AFFTC), and was delivered with full Prime Mission Electronic Equipment intact.
  • EC-135J (AF Serial Number 63-8057) is on display at the Pima Air and Space Museum in Tucson, Arizona.
  • EC-135L (AF Serial Number 61-0269 - nicknamed "Excaliber") is on display at the Grissom Air Museum, adjacent to Grissom Air Reserve Base near Peru, Indiana. The aircraft was last assigned to the 305th Air Refueling Wing and retired in 1992, at the end of the Cold War. The EC-135L was manufactured by Boeing Aircraft, Seattle, Washington. It was delivered to the Air Force on 8 December 1961. Assigned to Grissom AFB in 1970, the aircraft flew many missions during Operation Just Cause, Operation Desert Shield and Desert Storm. For the latter, it performed radio relay operations leading to the elimination of two Iraqi aircraft, over 60 tank kills, and 27 Scud missile strikes.
  • EC-135N (AF Serial Number 61-0327) is on display at the Museum of Aviation (Warner Robins). This model was originally an EC-135A, but was converted to an EC-135N in 1966 with a "Snoopy Nose", but the drooping nose was later reverted to the original nose.[11]
  • An EC-135 (AF Serial Number 61-0262) is part of the aircraft collection at the South Dakota Air and Space Museum adjacent to Ellsworth AFB near Rapid City, South Dakota. It was last assigned to the 4th Airborne Command and Control Squadron (4th ACCS), 28th Bomb Wing at Ellsworth.


  • Reference for the Variant Summary list: DoD 4120.14L, Model Designation of Military Aerospace Vehicles, May 12, 2004

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