Apollo/Advanced Range Instrumentation Aircraft

Worldwide Support of Space and Earth Programs for 35 Years

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Last EC-135E ARIA Retired to Air Force Museum

Missions supported by the Advanced Range Instrumentation Aircraft EC-135E No. 374 included worldwide telemetry gathering, international treaty verification, spacecraft launches, and cruise missile and ballistic missile defense testing. (Photo by Ray Johnson)

by Ray Johnson
Air Force Flight Test Center Public Affairs

11/13/00 - EDWARDS AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. (AFPN) -- The sole remaining EC-135E Advanced Range Instrumentation Aircraft flew her last flight Nov. 2. An aircrew from the Air Force Flight Test Center here delivered ARIA No. 374 -- nicknamed "Bird of Prey" -- to the Air Force Museum at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio, after a four-hour flight from Edwards AFB.

Also on board were a handful of airmen who once operated and maintained the small, unique program of airborne telemetry platforms that is being retired due to costs of the program and improved satellite technology.

Making the final flight were Lt. Gen. Robert Raggio, commander of the Aeronautical Systems Center at Wright-Patterson AFB, and Maj. Gen. Dick Reynolds, Air Force Flight Test Center commander.

During the late1980s, both men commanded Wright-Patterson ARIA units that traveled worldwide to gather data during spacecraft launches and missile tests. In fact, Raggio and Reynolds flew No. 374, which, like all ARIA birds, is easily recognizable by its bulbous nose which houses a seven-foot dish antenna.

Raggio said participating in 374's homecoming was a bittersweet experience.

"Of course, we are all sad that the aircraft will not be used anymore," Raggio said. "However, the close-knit ARIA community is very pleased that (No. 374) rests at the museum for all for us to visit and reminisce of missions past."

Reynolds called the aircraft's retirement the end of a long history of important developmental and operational test efforts that were vital to the United States and its allies.

"The ARIA belongs in the Air Force Museum," Reynolds said, "because of the crucial role it played in advancing aerospace technology."

Originally named Apollo Range Instrumentation Aircraft, the ARIA program was developed by NASA and the Department of Defense in the 1960s to track lunar missions, along with unmanned orbital and ballistic re-entry programs.

The first of eight, then EC-135N, aircraft became operational in 1968 as the program stood up at Patrick AFB, Fla.

Seven years later, ARIA, redesignated as Advanced Range Instrumentation Aircraft, transferred to the 4950th Test Wing at Wright-Patterson AFB.

Reynolds commanded the 4952nd Test Squadron from 1987 to 1989, and during that time aircrews made ARIA deployments to the far corners of the globe.

It was during a trip to Barbados that Reynolds remembers his favorite mission. Supporting a Trident submarine test, the general recalls flying out over the middle of the Atlantic Ocean on a moonless night when 10 missile re-entry vehicles rained in ahead of his aircraft. "It was a spectacular light show -- picture perfect," he said.

In 1994 the ARIA program, which now included EC-18B aircraft and more than 200 airmen, relocated to Edwards AFB. Gradually, taskings dwindled and planes were declared excess and transferred to other programs such as J-STARS. Today, only about 75 people directly and indirectly support the existing mission.

With No. 374 now sitting at Wright-Patterson AFB, only two active EC-18Bs, which are being used primarily by the Navy for pilot training, are left to represent ARIA's 30-year history.

However, that will change next May when No. 374 will be officially displayed at the Air Force Museum during a ceremony that also will honor 21 ARIA crewmembers killed in an 1981 accident. Expected to be present are hundreds of the plane's crewmembers who flew many of the approximately 300 missions the Bird of Prey made to support launches for high-profile programs as such the space shuttle, deep space probes and Mars Path Finder.