Quick thinking saved a USAF RC-135 and its 27 crew members after fire erupted during takeoff roll

An RC-135 Rivet Joint from the 45th Expeditionary Reconnaissance Squadron takes off for a mission here Aug. 26, 2008. The 45 ERS supports theater and national-level consumers with near real-time on-scene intelligence collection, analysis and dissemination. (U.S. Air Force by Tech. Sgt. Michael Boquette)

Disaster averted at Offut Air Force Base last April.

On Apr. 30 2015, RC-135V Rivet Joint, 64-14848, belonging to the 343rd Reconnaissance Squadron, 55th Wing, suffered a major incident at Offutt AFB, Nebraska.

As the aircraft, using radio callsign “Snoop 71,” began the take off roll to start its mission in support of a Special Operations training exercise, fire erupted behind the galley.

Described by one crew member as a “flamethrower”, the fire quickly filled the intelligence gathering plane with dense smoke and burned a hole in the aft fuselage. The aircraft commander (on his first flight, no less) quickly stopped the airplane and the crew egressed as fire fighters extinguished the blaze.

Total damage to the Rivet Joint: 62.4 million USD.

Robert Hopkins, III, a former RC-135 aircraft commander who flew the S, U, V, W, and X models in the 1980s and 1990s, and author of a book on the type, told The Aviationist that the plane very likely would have crashed if it became airborne; the quick reaction by the “baby aircraft commander” made a successful evacuation possible in less than half a minute since the pilot decided to abort takeoff.

“But if we took off – I mean, I don’t know how fast we could have emergency landed I mean – I know it’s quick but a few more minutes stuck on the jet not even able to start egressing would have ya know made it a lot different. So I feel really lucky that we didn’t take off, honestly. I’m also really glad that like no one got seriously injured,” a crew members told to investigators according to the 1,341 report on the mishap obtained by Omaha.com and made available here.

RC135 incident

Investigators were unable to determine the fire’s ignition source, but found that it was fanned by a faulty oxygen system that had been improperly serviced during the airplane’s last depot maintenance by L-3 Communications in Greenville, Texas.

The final report noted that L-3’s quality control failed to follow established procedures, and that L-3 installed used instead of new parts. Fleet-wide inspections are underway.

Image credit: U.S. Air Force


About David Cenciotti
David Cenciotti is a journalist based in Rome, Italy. He is the Founder and Editor of “The Aviationist”, one of the world’s most famous and read military aviation blogs. Since 1996, he has written for major worldwide magazines, including Air Forces Monthly, Combat Aircraft, and many others, covering aviation, defense, war, industry, intelligence, crime and cyberwar. He has reported from the U.S., Europe, Australia and Syria, and flown several combat planes with different air forces. He is a former 2nd Lt. of the Italian Air Force, a private pilot and a graduate in Computer Engineering. He has written five books and contributed to many more ones.


  1. Seems to me L3 should pay most if not all the repairs. I would hope their contracts have stuff written in case they can be proven to cause some sort or issue that they are at least partially (hopefully almost fully) liable for the repairs.

    • if and when they will need a new production run they will use the 787 airframe… or 767 or 737-800 or bigger versions.

      • Good luck finding the money. Too many other more important things to buy thanks to the procurement holiday of the 90s.

      • Don’t forget L-3 just converted three new RJs for the RAF, although this incident raises ongoing safety concerns for the RAF as they were reluctant to buy 50-year-old airplanes to replace the Nimrod because of its age and safety concerns.

        The mishap airplane flew back to L-3 last week for repair and is destined to return to service in 2016.

        Replacing the ISR fleet (E-3, E-8, and RC-135) is an absurdly low priority for the USAF behind F-35s, the KC-46, and the B-2 replacement (according to USAF CoS). The first thing theater commanders ask for is not an F-22 but an RJ and friends for the intel necessary to make good battle management decisions. The fighter-pilot mentality just doesn’t understand this. With F-22s used as stealthy airborne data managers off Syria you’d think they would learn.

  2. The report does not determine the cause of the fire. Oxygen does not burn. The report does not even attempt to ask the question. They need to be more thorough

    • You are partially correct. The report notes that there was insufficient post-fire evidence to determine the ignition source.–they looked but couldn’t find it. This is similar to the Apollo I fire. The full report does say that a wiring bundle to the electrical beverage containers in the galley experiences chafing and has led to exposed wiring across the RC-135 fleet, but there was no causative link with this incident. The report does not consider the timeline for causation. Apparently the fire erupted just as the pilots pushed up the throttles for takeoff rather than an insidious source during taxi. A transient electrical power spike might have been the culprit, but there is normally sufficient electrical power protection from the engine electrical generators to prevent this.

Comments are closed.