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NC-135 / NKC-135
NKC-135A Airborne Laser Lab
Role Special test missions aircraft
National origin United States
Manufacturer Boeing
Status In service
Primary users United States Air Force
United States Navy
Developed from Boeing C-135 Stratolifter
Boeing KC-135 Stratotanker

The Boeing NC-135 and NKC-135 are special versions of the Boeing C-135 Stratolifter and Boeing KC-135 Stratotanker modified to operate on several different programs.

Operational history

Readiness Program

In support of the U.S. Test Readiness Program that was initiated in response to the Limited Test Ban Treaty (LTBT) of 1963, Sandia National Laboratories configured three NC-135 aircraft as flying laboratories to support atmospheric testing of nuclear weapons, should testing have resumed. These aircraft were based at Kirtland Air Force Base. Work was initiated in 1963 and the aircraft remained in service with Sandia until 1976, flying principally for Sandia, the Los Alamos National Laboratory and the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.[1] The Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) maintained controlling oversight of the NC-135 flight test aircraft. After 1976, the aircraft flew for Air Force Weapons Laboratory.[2]

Airborne astronomy missions

NKC-135A operated by the US Navy's Fleet Electronic Warfare Systems Group

A USAF NKC-135 "Big Crow" ECM aircraft takes off from a forward-deployed operating base, while a KC-135R tops off its fuel tanks, in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

A USAF NKC-135 "Big Crow" with oversized nose at a forward deployed operating base, Operation IRAQI FREEDOM.

While flying simulations for the Test Readiness Program, the science teams assigned to the NC-135 aircraft realized that their flying laboratories could be effectively used to study solar eclipses, cosmic rays entering the atmosphere and the effects of magnetic fields in the ionosphere. Program scientists petitioned the AEC to allow for a program-within-a-program to use the aircraft for such scientific research. The petition was approved, and research continued through 1975.[2][3]

The first eclipse mission took place from Pago Pago in 1965, and flying in conjunction with several other science aircraft, one of the NC-135s managed to fly within eclipse totality for 160 seconds, providing valuable science data. Eclipse missions were also flown in 1970, 1972, 1973, 1979 and 1980.[2]

Big Crow

Big Crow is the designation of the two NKC-135 test-bed aircraft (55-3132 and 63-8050) heavily modified for electronic warfare testing, and to be used as a target simulator for flight testing the Boeing YAL-1 Airborne Laser (ABL).[4] On March 15, 2007, the YAL-1 successfully fired this laser in flight, hitting its target. The target was the NKC-135E Big Crow 1 test aircraft that has been specially modified with a "signboard" target on its fuselage. The test validated the system's ability to track an airborne target and measure and compensate for atmospheric distortion.[5]

Big Crow aircraft are also used as downrange telemetry assets in conjunction with Western Launch and Test Range launches from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.[6]

The Big Crow Program Office is coming to an end after over 30 years serving the US and its allies. The two Big Crow aircraft now rest in the storage at Davis-Monthan AFB, awaiting possible dismantling in 2009. However, pending congressional legislation in 2009 may result in the aircraft being conveyed to a private civilian entity for continued R&D efforts.

Other versions

One aircraft, serial 61-2666, has been modified as an NC-135W to test systems and equipment used on RC-135V and W Rivet Joint reconnaissance aircraft.[7][8]

From 1975 to 1984, the US used an NKC-135 for its Airborne Laser Lab program. The modified NKC-135A carried 10.6 micrometer green diode laser. Tests included successful interceptions of small air-to-air missiles such as the AIM-9 Sidewinder and drone aircraft. Despite the combat potential of the system, it was kept strictly experimental. However, the SCUD threat faced during the Gulf War reignited interest in an airborne laser system, resulting in the Boeing YAL-1.[9][10]


United States


  • Since 1984 NKC-135 Airborne Laser Lab has been on display at the National Museum of the United States Air Force in Dayton, Ohio. In August 2011 it was removed from display in the Museum's Air Park to make room for the arrival of the Museum's C-5A Galaxy. The Museum is currently attempting to locate a new home for the aircraft, otherwise the aircraft will likely be scrapped.

Specifications (C-135)

General characteristics

  • Crew: 3: pilot, copilot, boom operator (4 for non-PACER CRAG aircraft)
  • Length: 136 ft 3 in (41.53 m)
  • Wingspan: 130 ft 10 in (39.88 m)
  • Height: 41 ft 8 in (12.70 m)
  • Wing area: 2,433 ft² (226 m²)
  • Empty weight: 98,466 lb (44,663 kg)
  • Loaded weight: 297,000 lb (135,000 kg)
  • Max. takeoff weight: 322,500 lb (146,000 kg)
  • Powerplant: 4 × (R/T) CFM International CFM-56 turbofan engines, 21,634 lbf (96 kN) each , 18,000 lbf (80 kN) each


  • Maximum speed: 580 mph (933 km/h)
  • Range: 3,450 mi (5,550 km)
  • Service ceiling: 50,000 ft (15,200 m)
  • Rate of climb: 4,900 ft/min (1,490 m/min)

See also


  1. "Readiness Program" (PDF). Sandia National Laboratories. Retrieved 2007-03-22. 
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 Mulkin, Barb. "In Flight: The Story of Los Alamos Eclipse Missions" (PDF). Los Alamos Science. Los Alamos National Laboriatories. Retrieved 2007-03-22. 
  3. Dolci, Wendy (1997). "Milestones in Airbornce Astronomy: From the 1920s to the Present" (PDF). American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics. Retrieved 2007-03-22. 
  4. "RDT&E, DW/04 Advanced Component Development and Prototypes" (PDF). Missile Defense Agency (MDA) Exhibit R-2 RDT&E Budget Item Justification. Missile Defense Agency. 02 2007. Retrieved 2007-03-22. 
  5. Grill, Eric M., "Airborne Laser fires tracking laser, hits target", Aerotech News and Review, March 23, 2007, vol 22 issue 8
  6. Ray, Justin (2008-08-12). "Delta 2 rocket launch of GeoEye craft postponed". Spaceflight Now. 
  7. DoD 4120.15L Model Designations of Military Aerospace Vehicles
  8. DOD 4120.15-L - Addendum; MDS Designators allocated after 19 August 1998 (until September 2006)
  9. Airborne Laser Laboratory

External links

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