How airborne detectives collect evidence from a cloud of atomic debris.
- By James Schultz
- Air & Space magazine, July 2000
(Page 4 of 5)
Bohn, a 10-year Constant Phoenix veteran, says that once a bomb goes off somewhere on the globe, crew members can forget any scheduled weekend getaways, chores, or time with the family. For Bohn, a fervid Florida volleyballer, it might be a long time before he’s back on the beach. “It seems like [missions] usually happen on Friday afternoons before a holiday or a three-day weekend,” he says. “But as soon as the balloon goes up, we’re gone. In 30 minutes my bag is packed and I’m ready. I keep a bag for summer and I keep a bag for winter. If there’s a possibility that we’ll be seeing both hot and cold weather, I bring both.”
“It tightens everybody up when you get the call,” says Lynch. “You sit back and think What are we going to fly into? The Phoenix missions are long and they’re sudden. You go and for the next week you’re going to live in that airplane.”
The Sniffer is continuing work begun on September 16, 1947, when then General Dwight Eisenhower assigned the Air Force the responsibility for detection of atomic explosions worldwide. By the close of 1948, 55 filter-equipped RB-29 Air Weather Service aircraft were flying frequent sampling missions from Guam to the North Pole. A year later, on September 3, 1949, an RB-29 flying between Alaska and Japan detected what the entire fleet had been searching for: debris suspected to be from a Soviet atomic test. Confirmation came with 92 flights that collected 500 air samples in a two-week period. In a national radio address on September 23, President Harry Truman announced that the United States was no longer the planet’s sole possessor of nuclear weapons.
By July 1950, equipment aboard Constant Phoenix aircraft was capable of collecting air samples at altitudes ranging from 1,000 to 30,000 feet and quickly returning them to ground-based laboratories for analysis. By 1953, monitoring techniques improved with the addition of compressors and spherical containers that could hold more sampled air under higher pressure. A decade later, just prior to the signing of the Limited Test Ban Treaty, sampling reached its peak, as 77 airplanes—including B-52s and U-2s—regularly scrambled from nine airfields, covering roughly two-thirds of Northern Hemisphere airspace. By December 1965, WC-135s had taken the stage as the newest addition to the Constant Phoenix fleet. These were the aircraft flying in 1995 when both France and China conducted underground tests. Even when a nation admits to testing a nuclear device, the aircraft are sent to search for possible leaks of radioactive debris.
For crew members used to the cramped confines of earlier aircraft, the WC’s 136-foot-long, 12-foot-wide size was a relief, with plenty of walk-around space and legroom to spare. Inside, improvements to air-sampling equipment made it easier to collect evidence of fallout and to preserve it for laboratory analysis. The aircraft could operate for longer periods of time; extended-range versions capable of being refueled in flight appeared in 1968. Sampling missions were routinely conducted over the poles, the Far East, the Indian Ocean, the Bay of Bengal, and the Mediterranean Sea, as well as off the coasts of South America and Africa.
Phoenix equipment on board the WC-135 seems straight from the 1960s: consoles made of painted steel with analog gauges and dials. In fact, concedes Doris Bruner, Constant Phoenix equipment has changed very little since then: “There have not been a lot of technology improvements. We’re working at the limits of detection.”
But when the new gear for the Constant Phoenix program is completed, it will grab the first available seat. No longer will Constant Phoenix be “tail designation specific,” limited to flying on a single airplane. In a sense, the program will eventually return to its glory days, when dozens of aircraft were involved in sampling missions. To boost portability, the sampling system will be plug-and-play, with simple on/off switches and direct electrical connections to onboard power supplies. To avoid cutting holes in airframes, engineers at AFTAC are considering modified aircraft doors. Particulate collectors could be affixed to the doors, which could then be installed on the aircraft selected for the next mission. Although in theory the system could be put on several different kinds of aircraft, managers are now eyeing the current fleet of KC-135s and C-135s, as well as the two WC-135s also used. “We want to get away from the concept of one, two, or three airplanes,” says O’Brien. “We want to be able to pick up the phone and fly a mission right away. Whatever [aircraft] is ready, we load our equipment and off we go.”
The current WC-135 Sniffer aircraft are, despite advanced age, sturdy and reliable, but they require constant vigilance nevertheless. Concerns about encroaching on foreign airspace mandate flights over water, requiring the 45th Reconnaissance Squadron to adhere to an aggressive program to control corrosion. Every day technicians inspect all parts of the aircraft, including engines, hydraulic systems, and control surfaces, to catch corrosion in the earliest stages. The sampling technology may not have changed much since the 1960s, but with upgrades to the airframe, the WC-135 has actually become more reliable. “Thanks to its advanced avionics and improved technology, it’s doing its job better than ever,” says Technical Sergeant Frank Morales, a maintainer who has worked on the WC since 1986. “It’s amazing this 135 has gone through the transitions it has.” Morales reports that, with the exception of certain stretches of old and brittle wiring and the occasional hydraulic leak that occurs as seals stiffen in cold weather, there is no single WC-135 component that requires repeated monitoring and replacement.