Into the Mushroom Cloud
Most pilots would head away from a thermonuclear explosion.
- By Mark Wolverton
- Air & Space magazine, August 2009
Courtesy National Nuclear Security Administration / Nevada Site Office
(Page 2 of 5)
As Operation Ivy started in late 1952, the sampling flights had largely transitioned from relatively slow prop-driven aircraft to jets, whose greater speed gave crews less time to hang around in the cloud. They could also quickly reach higher altitudes, an important consideration for testing H-bomb detonations, which produce much wider and taller clouds.
When the world’s first hydrogen weapon, in a test designated “Mike,” wiped out the Marshallese island of Elugelab on November 1, 1952, four F-84G fighters carrying sample collection equipment on their wingtips were already in the air. Designated Red Flight and led by Lieutenant Colonel Virgil Meroney, the jets arrived in the area of the bomb cloud about an hour and a half after detonation.
Under instructions from the Convair B-36 sampler control aircraft circling some distance away, Meroney and his wingman penetrated the mushroom cloud’s stem at about 40,000 feet. (As predicted, the main cloud, which began forming at about 55,000 feet, was too high for an aircraft to reach. Samples from the stem would have to do.) Immersed in the dull red glow of the cloud interior, Meroney watched all his radiation instruments peg to their maximum readings. After about five minutes inside, he and his wingman executed a 90-degree turn and escaped.
Then came the rest of Red Flight: Red 3 with Captain Bob Hagan, and his wingman, Red 4, Captain Jimmy Robinson. Hagan calls the cloud “dark and boiling.”
“While we were going through the cloud, Robinson became disoriented and spun out,” Hagan recalls. Apparently, as Robinson pulled his airplane into a tight turn to escape what his instruments told him was a particularly hot part of the cloud, his autopilot disengaged, and as the jet stalled and lost altitude, he briefly lost control. Flight leader Meroney later reported hearing heavy breathing over the radio, as if Robinson had been holding down his mike button while fighting to control the aircraft. After Robinson reported that he had recovered at 20,000 feet, Meroney ordered him and Hagan to leave the cloud and rendezvous.
“I continued on out of the cloud and then went down to 20,000 feet to try to find him, but that didn’t work,” Hagan remembers. “There was a refueling tanker there but they couldn’t find us.” Electromagnetic aftereffects from the H-bomb explosion were also wreaking havoc with their navigational and radio equipment, while their fuel supply dissipated. After being forced to spend almost an hour at lower altitude, where fuel efficiency decreases, Hagan and Robinson had eaten into their scarce reserves. “I decided we better head for a runway somewhere, and Enewetak was the only one that was around,” Hagan says. He managed to pick up a radio beacon from the island and started off. Soon after, Robinson caught the beacon and followed Hagan.
Pacific cloud sampling missions had greater flying distances, so fuel was tight, and with F-84s unable to carry wingtip fuel tanks—that was where the cloud sampling filters were mounted—fuel capacity was even more limited. “When we got to Enewetak, my gas gauge was on empty,” Hagan says. “Luckily on final [approach], I was able to set up a pattern and land without fuel, deadstick.” On the hard landing, the right tire blew out.
Robinson wasn’t as lucky. He reported to Enewetak tower that at 13,000 feet his engine had flamed out, but he thought he could make the runway. By the time he’d dropped to 5,000 feet, with the island and runway in sight, Robinson radioed that he was bailing out over the water.