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 4 of 5)
After a mission, the pilots parked in an area removed from the normal flightline of the Nevada or Pacific testing site airstrip. But the crewmen couldn’t just pop the canopy and hop out. Any direct contact with the airplane’s exterior was hazardous. They had to shut down their engines and wait until a ground crew, in decontamination suits, approached with a forklift that would raise a platform to cockpit level. The pilot and radiation safety officer would step carefully out of the cockpit and onto the platform, taking care not to touch the aircraft’s skin. After being returned to the ground some distance away, the crews were checked for contamination and directed to strip and shower immediately, repeating the procedure until Geiger counters stopped their furious clicking. The crewmen were given fresh clothing, while their contaminated gear, along with the radiation dosimeters they’d worn during the mission, were carefully packed up and sent away for analysis.
Meanwhile, five-man filter recovery crews used 10-foot poles to unlatch the sample boxes, remove the filters, and place them in lead-lined containers for shipment back to the labs. It took a certain amount of finesse and manual dexterity. “You wore lead-lined gloves and a vest, which probably did no good,” recalls ground crew vet Lou Watts, who thinks many of his cohorts died early of cancer and sees some correlation. “All the ones that went to the ’56 tests in the Pacific that I kept track of are gone.”
Maintenance crews then thoroughly washed down the aircraft and scrubbed it clean of radioactive debris, using both soap and water and a cleaning compound called Gunk—although not even Gunk could render a contaminated airplane pristine. The best that could be done was to cleanse it to a reasonably low level of radioactivity, then let the remaining particles naturally decay. But because of the frantic pace of the testing program, most aircraft never sat idle long enough to completely cool off.
And some parts of an aircraft simply couldn’t be reached. “You couldn’t wash the inside of the engines,” notes aircraft mechanic David Ellis. Pilot Langford Harrison told Carole Gallagher, author of American Ground Zero, that “since engines are oily by nature, they never did get the radiation out. They’d leave them out there for two or three days and then bring them back into service, emitting radiation like there was no tomorrow. We’d crawl into those things and fly through the cloud again…the same aircraft over and over. They should have been burned along with our clothes.”
As the nukes kept detonating over Nevada and Enewetak and the cold war intensified, Atomic Energy Commission scientists argued with the Air Force over just how much radiation was too much. In 1951, when manned testing began, the AEC had specified that personnel participating in test operations could safely receive up to 3.9 roentgens of gamma radiation over three months. Once an individual had reached that level, he would be banned from further exposure until the remainder of the three months had passed.
That was the theory. In practice, the policy proved troublesome, particularly for the Air Force, which admitted as much in its official history of the sampling program: “The enforcement of radiological safety measures…was a continuing problem, with outright rebellion by Air Force operational leaders threatened on at least one occasion. They argued that no serious mishaps had occurred and that application of accepted radiological safety measures unnecessarily upped the requirements for manpower, lessened the readiness of crews and aircraft for tests, and that all decontamination program protection measures in use were more than actually required to insure safety.”
By 1957, the controversy had escalated from mild grumbling into open administrative warfare, with Air Force Colonel William Kieffer pushing to seriously downgrade, if not entirely eliminate, most of the routine decontamination procedures. The scientific director of the sampling effort, Harold Plank of Los Alamos, argued that Kieffer “simply could not understand the philosophy which regards every radiation exposure as injurious but accepts minimum exposures for critical jobs.” The safety and decontamination procedures continued—more or less—and the controversy was never resolved. Throughout the program, however, the officially permitted radiation dosage limits for Air Force personnel tended to drift upward to as high as the brass thought they could get away with.
In the early 1960s, spurred by increasing scientific awareness and public outcry over the dangers of fallout, nuclear testing began moving underground. The Limited Test Ban Treaty of 1963 made it final. The 4926th Test Squadron (Sampling) was absorbed into the Air Force Military Air Transport Service.