US Air Force Retires Its Final OC-135B Open Skies Aircraft

The United States Air Force retired its final OC-135B Open Skies observation aircraft on Friday at Offutt Air Force Base in Nebraska. The ceremony was attended by Col. John Litecky, commander of the 55th Operations Group; Col Gavin P. Marks, commanding officer of the 55th Wing; Col. Kenneth Woodcock, the Mobilization Assistant to the Deputy Chief of Staff for Strategic Deterrence and Nuclear Integration, Headquarters U.S. Air Force; as well as members of the 45th Reconnaissance Squadron operating the OC-135B and the Defense Threat Reduction Agency. Congressman Don Bacon, the representative for Nebraska’s second congressional district, was also present at the ceremony, which was livestreamed on Offut Air Force Base’s Facebook page.

Col. Litecky’s opening remarks recapped the history of the Open Skies Treaty as well as the long service of tail number 61-2670, which was first delivered to the US Air Force on 25 April 1962 as a new C-135B Stratolifter, one of the first C-135s equipped with TF33 turbofan engines. Tail 670 would then be declared surplus and modified into a WC-135 weather reconnaissance aircraft, joining the 55th Weather Reconnaissance Squadron based at McClellan Air Force Base in California in 1965. Tail 670 would then spend nearly three decades flying weather reconnaissance and training missions, before being selected for conversion into one of three Open Skies observation aircraft shortly after the signing of the Open Skies Treaty in 1992, joining the 24th Reconnaissance Squadron at Offutt. In 1994, the three OC-135Bs were transferred to the 45th Reconnaissance Squadron, following its reactivation to replace the 24th RS in carrying out Open Skies missions.

Col. Litecky said that the OC-135Bs had become beloved members of the 45th Reconnaissance Squadron, describing them as “new in mission but old and irritable in spirit”. He added that the Open Skies aircraft had gained a reputation for being creaky “even by 135 standards”, noting that the TF33s on 670 were “essentially the same ones” delivered in 1962, becoming notorious in their old age for higher than normal rates of maintenance issues and being generally troublesome to deal with. However, he said that the uniqueness of the aircraft and its mission made for many fond memories by old crewmembers through the years.

Col. Litecky concluded by saying that the retirement ceremony represented “so much more” than the retirement of the aircraft behind him:

“It represents the thousands of flight hours and the hundreds of aviators who left their homes for weeks at a time as they flew alone overseas, unafraid. It represents hundreds of thousands of hours of maintainers spent diagnosing problems and fixing those problems, in temperatures well over a hundred degrees and sometimes well below zero. It represents countless safe landings everywhere from our nation’s capital to old and degraded and decrepit runways in Russia. And it represents memories that have been made and bonds that have been formed, and a mission that was safely and successfully executed over the last 30 years. All of this would not have been possible without the colossal efforts of both past and present members of all of the organizations that are represented here today. So, we thank you, 61-2670, for your service to the 45th Reconnaissance Squadron, 55th Operations Group, the 55th Wing, the joint team at the Defense Threat Reduction Agency and the United States of America, and we hope that down in the sunny sands of Arizona that you finally find a peaceful resting spot.”

The ceremony also closed out a chapter of the 55th Wing’s history, with the official deactivation of the Open Skies mission as Col. Marks read the official retirement order of 670, bringing to an end the OC-135B’s career of 59 years and 40 days. Following its retirement, 670 will be delivered to the 309th Aerospace Maintenance and Regeneration Group “Boneyard” at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base.

61-2670 prepares to take off Sept. 14, 2018, from the flight line at Offutt Air Force Base, Nebraska. (U.S. Air Force photo by Charles J. Haymond)

Rep. Bacon, a former commanding officer of the 55th Wing, delivered closing remarks. He described the Open Skies Treaty as having been successful in “forcing” the United States and Russia to work together, and even more so allowing the US to work together with its allies. He said that Baltic NATO members “craved” opportunities to work together with the US on Open Skies missions, as it was their only method of gaining imagery of Russian military formations and bases on their borders. He spoke of the “maximum effort” by him, Rep. Jeff Fortenberry and Sen. Deb Fischer to get the OC-135Bs replaced, successfully funding a replacement one year before the Trump administration’s decision to withdraw from the Open Skies treaty, as well as lamenting his failure to have the decision overturned. He concluded by thanking the 55th Wing for being “the greatest wing in the United States Air Force”.

The retirement of 61-2670 comes a month after the retirement of the other remaining OC-135B, tail number 61-2672. The ceremony also comes shortly after the Biden administration confirmed that it would not be returning to the Open Skies Treaty, saying that Russian failure to take actions that would return it to treaty compliance and its recent actions on the borders of Ukraine made clear that it was not a partner “committed to confidence-building”.