July 16, 2007: Airborne Laser Intercepts Big Crow Aircraft

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  • Air Force Flight Test Center

In an effort to simulate a missile intercept, the Airborne Laser actively tracked the Big Crow airborne target aircraft, compensated for atmospheric turbulence, and fired a surrogate for the high-energy laser. The test demonstrated most of the steps needed for the Airborne Laser to engage and destroy an inbound threat missile..

Big Crow is the designation of the two NKC-135 test-bed aircraft heavily modified for electronic warfare testing. These planes were also used as a target simulator for flight testing the Boeing YAL-1 Airborne Laser.  On March 15, 2007, the YAL-1 successfully fired this laser in flight, hitting its target. The target was the NKC-135E Big Crow test aircraft that had been specially modified with a "signboard" target on its fuselage. The test validated the system's ability to track an airborne target and measure and compensate for atmospheric distortion.

Big Crow aircraft are also used as downrange telemetry assets in conjunction with Western Launch and Test Range launched from Vandenberg Air Force Base, California, Since 2008, Big Crow aircraft have been retired, and relegated to the aircraft boneyard at Davis-Monthan AFB, Tucson, AZ).  One aircraft has been modified as an NC-135W to test systems and equipment used on RC-135V, Rivet Joint reconnaissance aircraft.  

From 1975 to 1984, the United States used an NKC-135 for its Airborne Laser Lab program. The modified NKC-135A carried 10.6 micrometer Carbon Dioxide Laser. Tests included successful interceptions of small air-to-air missiles and of drone aircraft.  Despite the combat potential of the system, it was kept strictly experimental. However, the SCUD threat faced during the Gulf War reignited interest in an airborne laser system, resulting in the Boeing YAL-1..

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