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 3 of 5)
A rescue helicopter spotted Robinson’s F-84, wings level and gliding in, at about 500 feet, north of the atoll. To the rescue pilot, it looked as though Robinson had jettisoned his canopy but had decided to stay in the cockpit and try for a water landing. The craft hit the water, skipped smoothly over the surface, then hit a wave and flipped over. The rescue helicopter hovered over the jet as it sank rapidly. Robinson was nowhere to be seen.
“As I got out of my airplane,” recalls Hagan, “the people in the tower told me that an airplane had just gone into the ocean behind me. They didn’t see any signs of a parachute or anything.” The sampling pilots wore lead-lined vests, which, along with the rest of their gear, would have made even bailing out problematic, let alone staying afloat.
According to official reports, Robinson’s body was never recovered. “They searched but they couldn’t find anything,” says Hagan. “It’s pretty deep right there. I wasn’t around when they did it, but I heard later that they had tried and couldn’t find the airplane or Jimmy at all. There must have been currents in there that took the airplane away.” Captain Jimmy Priestly Robinson, age 28, would be awarded a posthumous Distinguished Flying Cross about a year later.
On April 1, 1953, Fackler’s Pentagon campaigning paid off, and the 4926th Test Squadron (Sampling) officially opened for business. Until atmospheric nuclear testing finally ended, men would continue piloting specially equipped aircraft into radioactive clouds. In her 1999 study of cold war radiation experimentation, The Plutonium Files, journalist Eileen Welsome wrote: “Perhaps no humans got closer to the exploding heart of a nuclear weapon than the sampler pilots.”
The men chosen for the missions had a lot of flying hours, usually including combat experience. Both Jimmy Robinson and Bob Hagan were World War II veterans; Robinson had been a B-24 pilot who had been shot down over Romania and done time as a prisoner of war, while Hagan had flown almost 100 ground support missions in a P-47 with the Ninth Air Force. Pleased to be picked for such an important job, the pilots shrugged off the possible dangers: “You know, young and dumb,” Hagan laughs. But aside from great stick-and-rudder skills and exceptional instrument flying ability, a sampling pilot needed a knack for what’s now called multi-tasking.
Paul Guthals, one of the cloud sampling project leaders at Los Alamos, explained in the Air Force history publication: “Pilots with the ability to succeed in sampling missions were difficult to find. They had to possess the ability to receive radioed instructions, make taped recordings of instrument readings, be alert for excessive radiation and myriad other details simultaneously.... Most pilots with less experience and proven ability were simply overwhelmed—so badly that they could not function satisfactorily—by the awesomeness of the cloud interior.”
By most reports, the world inside an atomic cloud was a turbulent, glowing, brick red. On his mission, Hagan didn’t notice much color, but admits, “I didn’t pay much attention because I was flying instruments.” The reddish tint, from explosion byproducts such as nitrogen dioxide and iron oxides, provided pilots with a handy way to visually distinguish atomic clouds from cumulonimbus clouds.
Though they wore lead vests and their cockpits were usually lined in lead, the sampling crews soaked up more than their fair share of radiation—routinely far more than anyone else in the testing program. Besides the dose they received during the jaunts in the radioactive cloud, they continued to be bathed in radiation all the way home to base, sitting in an airplane coated with highly radioactive debris.
The choice of aircraft for the sampling missions was critical. The aircraft had to be fast, maneuverable, and easily modified to carry the sampling equipment. Particularly with the advent of the hydrogen bomb, it was also important that the aircraft be able to operate at high altitudes. Eventually, project leaders settled on two mainstays: the Republic F-84G fighter and the English Electric B-57 Canberra, built under license by Martin. Each met all the basic mission criteria and needed only a pilot and radiation officer, so fewer personnel were exposed to radiation. Later models of the B-57 had ceilings up to 60,000 feet, so the twin-engine jet bomber became the cloud sampling workhorse.