After spending six months on the ground at RAF Waddington following its delivery, the RAF’s first, and currently only, RC-135W Rivet Joint took to the skies today for the first time as an RAF aircraft. Gordon Jones reports for GAR.

© Gordon Jones -

RC-135W ZZ664 seen here on delivery to RAF Waddington © Gordon Jones –

When ZZ664 took off today it marked a major milestone in the RAF’s program to introduce the Rivet Joint to active service.

ZZ664 had arrived on the 12 November 2013 and is the first of the three RC-135W Rivet Joint ELINT (Electronics Intelligence) aircraft purchased for the UK from the USA. After being delivered to RAF Waddington by L-3, which had converted them from low hour and overhauled KC-135R Stratotankers, ZZ664 underwent acceptance checks and work began for the aircraft to be issued with its Release To Service (RTS). The RTS is an essential and extensive document that authorises flying of a Service aircraft and will include the approved configurations of the aircraft, equipment that can be carried by the aircraft and limitations of the aircraft.

The purchase of the RC-135Ws was agreed in late 2009 before the Military Aviation Authority (MAA) was formed. After the formation of the MAA it was identified that the RC-135W would not be able to comply with the current airworthiness regulations (or indeed even the pre-MAA regulations) due to the age of the design. This situation will have been complicated by the fact that the RAF’s RC-135Ws have been converted from Boeing 717-148 aircraft, whilst the USAF’s RC-135Ws are based on the 717-166 and the RC-135V being based on the 739-445B.

In December 2011 an agreement was made between the MAA and Defence Equipment & Support (DE&S), which is responsible for procurement, to produce an Alternative Airworthiness Strategy. This would see DE&S produce a safety argument for the aircraft type and the MAA producing assurances of this argument. It has taken six months for this argument to be produced and it is expected that the Secretary of State will have now signed off the RTS.

Now that the aircraft can be flown, 51 Squadron can begin working towards achieving Initial Operational Capability (IOC). The Squadron has been co-manning RC-135 aircraft with the USAF since 2011 and will bring more than 1,800 sorties and in excess of 32,000 flying hours of experience with them, and it is expected that they will reach IOC in only five months.

The second RC-135W, which will be ZZ665, is expected to be delivered in 2015 and the final airframe, ZZ666, will be delivered in 2017. Full Operational Capability should follow in 2018.