The first RC-135W Rivet Joint flight in Royal Air Force service takes to the skies at RAF Waddington. (Sgt Si Pugsley/RAF)
LONDON — Britain’s new Rivet Joint RC-135W aircraft has secured an interim release to service allowing the signals intelligence platform to fly for the first time since it was delivered last November.
The aircraft, part of the Airseeker program, has been grounded at the Royal Air Force base at Waddington awaiting approval for release to service by the Military Aviation Authority (MAA) and others at the Ministry of Defence.
The vintage age of the original design and the unavailability of some design and qualification evidence has posed problems for RAF safety authorities conducting the release to service approval process.
Certification issues with the Rivet Joint have resulted in the MAA and others developing an alternative compliance process for new aircraft. The new process enables legacy aircraft to meet requirements without compromising safety levels.
The RC-135W’s are the first of three signals intelligence aircraft due to be delivered to the Royal Air Force by the US government under a £650 million (US $1.1 billion) Foreign Military Sales agreement signed in 2010.
The aircraft are 50-year-old KC-135 tankers upgraded and modified to the Rivet Joint configuration by L-3 Communications at its Greenville, Texas, facility.
The aircraft has recently been granted interim approval pending a full release to service later in the year and flew for the first time May 23.
The aircraft is on track to enter service by the end of the year. A second Rivet Joint is scheduled for delivery next year and the final aircraft should be handed over two years later.
Britain axed its remaining Nimrod R1 signals intelligence aircraft after the 2011 military campaign in Libya.
Royal Air Force air and grounds crews have been co-manning US Air Force Rivet Joint aircraft and ground stations with American personnel to retain skills and operational capabilities.
Philip Hammond, the British defense secretary, said in a statement the “highly specialised aircraft and their supporting ground systems, bought off-the-shelf, provide Britain with a first class intelligence-gathering capability that is value for money and another key part of our ability to interoperate with the US.” ■