Into the Mushroom Cloud

Most pilots would head away from a thermonuclear explosion.

Air Force personnel decontaminate a B-29 sampler aircraft with Gunk degreaser. (Courtesy National Nuclear Security Administration / Nevada Site Office)
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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.

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.”

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