ARIA: The Unusual Aircraft Spawned by the Apollo Mission

In the 1960s, the US launched (pun intended) into a new frontier…space and the race for the moon. The US discovered that in order to achieve this lofty goal, it required a premier agency to oversee the program, thus the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) was created. NASA quickly noticed a need to acquire launch tracking and telemetry data in hard to reach locations around the world. Thus a military program/aircraft was built called the ARIA.

Apollo/Advanced Range Instrumentation Aircraft The nose held a small, steerable satellite dish.

Apollo/Advanced Range Instrumentation Aircraft
The nose held a small, steerable satellite dish. This plane is pictured at the National Museum of the US Air Force in Dayton, Ohio.

The ARIA (Apollo/Advanced Range Instrumentation Aircraft) mission collected telemetry data during launches in locations where signals would be lost by lack of ground stations (particularly over the oceans). Why does that matter? Believe it or not, space, even around measly little old Earth, is a big place. When NASA launches into space, it does so along a particular trajectory. If the craft deviates for any reason, then it will enter space on a slightly different path and could easily become “lost in space” (ie. the telemetry tells NASA what orbit the vehicle is in).

Mission requirements caused the deployment of personnel around the world. Sometimes this took the plane to a small island in the middle of an ocean with a less than nominal (read dangerous/difficult/no alternate landing site) runway. Other times, the planes landed in paradise. Below are listed a few of the sites and what led to the design of a fun logo “ARIA World Tours” seen in the photo below.

ARIA program stickers

ARIA program stickers

Deployments (a few from a long list):

  • Easter Island
  • Thule, Greenland
  • Guam
  • Tahiti
  • Recife, Brazil
  • Saipan
  • Sidney, Australia
  • Singapore
  • Capetown, South Africa
  • Cold Lake, Canada
  • Dakar, Senegal
  • Ascension Island

Also lost over time is the meaning behind “AGAR,” the call sign used for the aircraft. If anyone knows when or how the name AGAR came about (it was used first at Patrick AFB and carried forth), please let me know so I can pass it along.

At a recent union for those involved in the ARIA mission, my husband and I toured the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum. In a corner behind a huge rocket engine nozzle, we found this note about the mission: “A system of 14 ground stations, 5 instrumented ships, and 8 aircraft made up the Manned Spaceflight Network in 1969. The network provided data for tracking and communicating with Apollo 11. Look closely for the plane’s large round nose, which housed tracking instruments.”

Blurb about the ARIA mission at Smithsonian Air and Space Museum, DC.

Blurb about the ARIA mission at Smithsonian Air and Space Museum, DC.

The original ARIA aircraft were built on the Boeing C-135A frame and designated EC-135As. Later they were augmented by used Boeing 707 aircraft and were called EC-18s. They flew missions from 1968-2001 from the following locations.

  • Patrick Air Force Base, Florida             1968-1975
  • Wright Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio 1975-1994
  • Edwards Air Force Base, California       1994-2001

People who lived in Melbourne, Florida or Dayton, Ohio or Lancaster, California might remember seeing these odd aircraft.

ARIA Wright-Patterson Squadron located at Dayton, Ohio

ARIA Wright-Patterson Squadron located at Dayton, Ohio 1980s

So why did their mission end after 2001? ARIA’s replacement, a new satellite named TDRS (pronounced TeeDRiS), arrived in space. The Tracking and Data Relay Satellite, was built by TRW corporation and is now in its fourth generation. A first generation satellite example hangs in the Smithsonian’s Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center near Dulles Airport. I snapped the photo below there last month. It makes me wonder if ARIA covered the launch of its replacement.

TDRS - First generation satellite in Smithsonian Steven R. Udvar-Hazy Center, Virginia. Photo by Parks

For more information about the ARIA, check out the following: ARIA video and website. Please be sure to leave comments or share a story or provide further information about the ARIA. Thanks for stopping by.