This first appeared as a Comment in the 3 June issue of Flight International
There was something rather surreal about the UK Ministry of Defence’s press release heralding the first Royal Air Force flight of an RC-135W Rivet Joint on 23 May. While at some level it was true, the choice of “RAF’s new surveillance aircraft takes to the skies” could be considered a bit misleading, as the airframe in question is actually already 50 years old.
Some believed that the UK contract to modify three 1964-vintage KC-135R tankers would be fatally at odds with the needs of the independent Military Aviation Authority – set up as a direct consequence of the loss of 14 lives when Nimrod XV230 exploded in 2006. A lack of documentation to satisfy modern certification processes had seemed a likely problem.
So how is it that the now signals intelligence-roled aircraft has been able to commence training flights, with a potential crew of 35 souls aboard? Either the MAA found no fault with the paperwork with which it was presented, or the RAF duty holders – who now “get” the new concept of operational risk – are happy for ZZ664 to operate within fixed safety constraints.
The fact that the UK needs a big-jet SIGINT asset should have swayed thinking more than the project’s £650 million price tag for an eventual three aircraft. Time will show whether the decision makers got it all right, but success will prove that the new safety culture can deliver – even with a refurbished platform.