During the early 1960s, NASA and the Department of Defense needed a mobile tracking and telemetry platform to support the Apollo space program and other unmanned space flight operations. In a joint project, NASA and the DoD contracted with the McDonnell Douglas and the Bendix Corporations to modify eight Boeing C-135 Stratolifter cargo aircraft into Apollo/Range Instrumentation Aircraft (A/RIA). Equipped with a steerable seven-foot antenna dish in its distinctive "Droop Snoot" or "Snoopy Nose," the EC-135N A/RIA became operational in January 1968. The Air Force Eastern Test Range (AFETR) at Patrick Air Force Base, Fla., maintained and operated the A/RIA until the end of the Apollo program in 1972 when the USAF renamed it the Advanced Range Instrumentation Aircraft (ARIA).
Transferred to the 4950th Test Wing at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio, in December 1975 as part of an overall consolidation of large test and evaluation aircraft, the ARIA fleet underwent numerous conversions, including a re-engining that changed the EC-135N to the EC-135E. In 1994 the ARIA fleet relocated to Edwards Air Force Base, Calif., as part of the 412th Test Wing. However, taskings for the ARIA dwindled because of high costs and improved satellite technology, and the USAF transferred the aircraft to other programs such as J-STARS (Joint Surveillance and Target Attack Radar System).
On Nov. 3, 2000, a flight crew from the Air Force Flight Test Center delivered the last EC-135E (serial number 60-374, nicknamed Bird of Prey) to the National Museum of the United States Air Force. Over its 32-year career, the ARIA supported the U.S. space program, gathered telemetry, verified international treaties and supported cruise missile and ballistic missile defense tests.
TECHNICAL NOTES: Armament: None Engines: Four Pratt & Whitney TF-33-PW-102 turbofans (JT3D) of 18,000 lbs. thrust each Crew: 11 Maximum cruising speed: 490 knots Normal cruising speed: 430 knots Maximum operation altitude: 33,000 ft. Range: 2800-4500 nautical miles without in-flight refueling (depending on mission and equipment carried) Span: 103.8 ft. Length: 141.5 ft. Height: 41.7 ft. Weight: 300,500 lbs. maximum takeoff gross weight Serial number: 60-374