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 resume. These aircraft were based at Kirtland Air Force Base. Work was initiated in 1963 and the aircraft remained in service 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 of the US Navy's Fleet Electronic Warfare Systems Group
USAF NKC-135 "Big Crow" ECM aircraft takes off from a forward operating base[3]
A USAF NKC-135 "Big Crow" with oversized nose at a forward deployed operating base

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 as well as 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][4]

The first eclipse mission took place from Pago Pago International Airport in 1965. 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. These planes were also used as a target simulator for flight testing the Boeing YAL-1 Airborne Laser.[5] 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 had 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.[6]

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.[7]

Since 2008, 55-3132 and 63-8050 have been retired, and relegated to the AMARG (Davis-Monthan AFB, Tucson, AZ).[8][9]

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. As of September 2023, 61-2666 has been withdrawn from use and stored at DMA. [10][11]

From 1975 to 1984, the US used an NKC-135 for its Airborne Laser Lab program. The modified NKC-135A carried 10.6 micrometer Carbon Dioxide Laser. Tests included successful interceptions of small air-to-air missiles (such as the AIM-9 Sidewinder) and of 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.[12][13]


 United States


Specifications (NKC-135A)

Data from Encyclopedia of world military aircraft Volume 1[citation needed][15]

General characteristics


See also

Related development

Aircraft of comparable role, configuration, and era


  1. ^ "Readiness Program" (PDF). Sandia National Laboratories. Archived from the original (PDF) on 2006-02-12. Retrieved 2007-03-22.
  2. ^ a b c Mulkin, Barb. "In Flight: The Story of Los Alamos Eclipse Missions" (PDF). Los Alamos Science. Los Alamos National Laboriatories. Retrieved 2007-03-22.
  3. ^ In the foreground a KC-135R tops off its fuel tanks.
  4. ^ Dolci, Wendy (1997). "Milestones in Airbornce Astronomy: From the 1920s to the Present" (PDF). American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics. Archived from the original (PDF) on 2005-03-30. Retrieved 2007-03-22.
  5. ^ "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. February 2007. Archived (PDF) from the original on May 28, 2008. Retrieved 2007-03-22.
  6. ^ Grill, Eric M., "Airborne Laser fires tracking laser, hits target", Aerotech News and Review, March 23, 2007, vol 22 issue 8
  7. ^ Ray, Justin (2008-08-12). "Delta 2 rocket launch of GeoEye craft postponed". Spaceflight Now.
  8. ^ "HNL RareBirds". 5 March 2011. Retrieved 9 July 2015.
  9. ^ "NKC135B & E 63-8050 / 55-3132 USAF". 18 September 2011. Retrieved 18 July 2015.
  10. ^ DoD 4120.15L Model Designations of Military Aerospace Vehicles
  11. ^ "DOD 4120.15-L – Addendum".
  12. ^ John Pike. "Airborne Laser Laboratory".
  14. ^ "BOEING NKC-135A STRATOTANKER (AIRBORNE LASER LAB)". Archived from the original on 22 July 2015. Retrieved 9 July 2017.
  15. ^ Donald, David; Lake, John, eds. (1994). Encyclopedia of world military aircraft Volume 1 (1st ed.). Aerospace. p. 72. ISBN 1874023522.
  16. ^ Lednicer, David. "The Incomplete Guide to Airfoil Usage". Retrieved 16 April 2019.