How airborne detectives collect evidence from a cloud of atomic debris.
- By James Schultz
- Air & Space magazine, July 2000
(Page 2 of 5)
“You have a finite number of assets. You have to deploy them prudently as events occur,” says Cargill Hall, chief historian in the National Reconnaissance Office in Chantilly, Virginia. “What Constant Phoenix provides is definite confirmation of an above-ground test, or a leak from underground testing. Sniffer aircraft are a vital element of any strategic reconnaissance program.”
On a blustery January day this year, a WC-135 sat on the ramp at Offutt Air Force Base in Nebraska, bright afternoon sun playing over its fresh coat of white and blue paint. (Even though AFTAC oversees the Constant Phoenix mission, the Air Force’s Air Combat Command at Offutt has operational responsibility for the WC-135 airframe.) Riley, a captain in the 45th Reconnaissance Squadron, shepherded visitors through a quick tour of the aircraft, which had just returned from an exhaustive, months-long refurbishing in Greenville, Texas. For the 39-year-old airplane, it was not just a minor facelift. The WC was stripped down to skin and struts and put back together, panel by panel, rivet by rivet. Wiring by the mile was checked or replaced and some key avionics systems upgraded: There’s a new digital altimeter and souped-up navigation system with enhanced Global Positioning System capability. Outside, Air Force maintainers braved wind chills in the teens as they checked engines and landing gear, while inside, a cockpit electronics check was in progress. Sound-deadening carpet arrived for reinstallation. This WC, once ready for retirement, was again ready for the call.
The Sniffer is scrambled when any of the worldwide network of AFTAC sensors detects a nuclear blast and the Joint Chiefs of Staff at the Pentagon give the final go-ahead for flight. Data from a combination of orbiting satellites and ground and undersea sensors is funneled to AFTAC headquarters at Patrick Air Force Base in Florida. The triad works in combination, each part supporting the others. If a detonation is above ground, satellite-borne sensors can distinguish between the optical signature of conventional explosives and the flash of nuclear ordnance. Other detectors mounted on satellites discern post-detonation gamma rays at high altitudes, observe slight atomic-blast-induced fluctuations that disturb Earth’s magnetic field, and monitor chemical signatures of radioactive particles at a distance. If detonation occurs underground, sensitive seismometers track the signatures of acoustic pressure waves rippling through Earth’s crust, while underwater hydrophones can “hear” the distinctive after-blast sound that can carry for thousands of miles through the world’s oceans.
When the notice is given, aircraft maintainers in Nebraska run through the preflight checklist while the aircrews hustle from Patrick to Orlando International Airport, an hour’s drive, to catch the first available commercial flight to Omaha. Once they land, it will be another half-hour drive down the interstate to Offutt, and takeoff in the waiting WC-135.
Inside a Sniffer as it flies toward the location of a recent detonation, as more than 30 crew members may be on board, including three pilots, two navigators, one deployment commander, a mission commander (who supervises the running of the Phoenix’s atmospheric sampling gear), as many as three special equipment operators (SEOs), three atmospheric technicians, and some 18 maintainers who will work on the airplane when it sets down. Once airborne, directed by sensor data and constantly updated weather forecasts, the WC heads for the fallout plume and hours of sampling. It can fly the better part of a day before it arrives at the location of a blast and begins the methodical tracks that will take it through whatever airborne fallout awaits. Landings are required every 24 hours to allow the crew to rest and to unload samples that have to get to laboratories for fast analysis.
“Those 18- to 20-hour missions are a killer,” says Technical Sergeant Richard Bohn, an SEO. “You’re just transiting, flying along fat, dumb, and happy. It’s lots of boredom followed by lots more boredom.”
In flight, a senior SEO sits at an equipment console roughly the size of two large filing cabinets. The console is electrically connected to four externally mounted Geiger-Müller tubes that watch for the presence of gamma radiation.
The WC must remain outside national boundaries, in international airspace, a task made far easier by the latest generation of navigational aids. “We have to know our location at all times,” says Riley. “When we say we know where we are, we know where we are. We don’t want to violate anyone’s airspace.”