Personnel from the UK Royal Air Force’s 51 Sqn have begun performing training flights using the unit’s first RC-135W Rivet Joint signals intelligence aircraft, following the receipt of initial release to service approval.

A 23 May sortie flown from RAF Waddington in Lincolnshire represented the first time that the aircraft – ZZ664 – has been airborne since its delivery flight, following its modification from a Boeing KC-135R tanker at L-3 Communications’ Greenville site in Texas. The aircraft has been used to support activities including ground-based training since its arrival last November.

UK RC-135W Rivet Joint - Crown Copyright

Crown Copyright

“The RC-135W has been cleared by the RAF’s release to service authority, to fly to an initial release to service [and] to a flight envelope that meets the current operational requirement,” the Ministry of Defence says. “Ongoing work will progressively refine this release as additional information becomes available and further analysis is conducted.” Speaking earlier this year, the director general of the UK Military Aviation Authority (MAA) suggested that alternative methods would be required to allow the Rivet Joint to enter RAF service, due to its use of a 50 year-old airframe.

The MAA launched an independent safety assessment of the converted RC-135 during April, and delivered its recommendations to the RAF before the training milestone was achieved.

Responding to questions from Flight International, the MoD says that the RC-135 “is due to enter service with the RAF in late 2014. However, both DE&S [the Defence Equipment & Support organisation] and the RAF are striving to make this capability available to Defence as soon as practicable, responding to demand to support ongoing operations.”

Being supplied in a configuration common with the RC-135s operated by the US Air Force, the UK’s eventual three aircraft are being acquired via the Airseeker programme – worth around £650 million ($1.09 billion).

UK RC-135W Rivet Joint Waddington - Crown Copyrigh

Crown Copyright

“These highly specialised aircraft and their supporting ground stations provide Britain with a first-class intelligence-gathering capability,” says Air Marshal Simon Bollom, the MoD’s chief of materiel (air). The Rivet Joints “will be an excellent addition to the RAF’s fleet", he adds.

“As planned, the second KC-135R tanker is just over half way through its conversion programme at L-3’s facility in Greenville. Delivery to the UK is on track for August 2015,” the MoD says. “The third and final aircraft is scheduled to commence its conversion programme in January 2015, with UK delivery targeted for June 2017.” Full operational capability with the fleet should be declared later the same year, it adds.

Crews from 51 Sqn have been flying with the USAF since January 2011 under a co-manning agreement signed following the UK’s order for the RC-135. The US Rivet Joint fleet is based at Offutt AFB in Nebraska.

The MoD also has provided limited details of the crew level required to operate the type, which will include pilots, navigators, electronic warfare officers, intelligence operators and airborne maintenance technicians. “The exact number depends on the nature of the task, but a typical mission sortie would have around 25 crew members on board, with approximately 35 for full training missions,” the MoD says.

Powered by CFM International CFM56 engines, the UK’s RC-135s will re-establish a large-platform SIGINT capability lapsed since the retirement of 51 Sqn’s last British Aerospace Nimrod R1 in 2011.

Source: Flight International