Nukes vs. Airplanes
Between the F-80 and the F-104, a supersonic pioneer fought the Cold War...in its own way.
- By Jorge and Karen Escalona
- Air & Space magazine, July 2008
(Page 3 of 4)
Friedrichs recognized the fighter’s historic significance. “There were some things about that airplane that I thought were phenomenal,” says Friedrichs. “The fact that the aircraft survived at all is a story that needed to be shared.”
When Friedrichs served as a scientist at the Nevada Test Site, he got a first-hand look at the remains of the airplane as it sat on a dry lakebed over several decades. “Since only two were built and one was destroyed, in the late 1980s I got the process started of getting this aircraft preserved for presentation in a museum,” he says. For 13 years Friedrichs forged through bureaucratic snags: He assessed the aircraft’s historic value, contacted museum curators, organized funding, and found contractors to retrieve and decontaminate the airplane after five decades of radioactive decay.
In 2001, Friedrichs found a home for the XF-90 prototype: the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force, near Dayton, Ohio. The museum’s director, retired Major General Charles D. Metcalf, recognized the important role the aircraft played in the beginning of the cold war as an experiment in early atmospheric testing of atomic bombs. “[The XF-90] had a lot of firsts,” he says, adding that the fighter will be used in an exhibition on “the people and events during the very inception of the cold war.”
Although the sleek fighter never made it into production, its participation in three atmospheric atomic bomb tests helped in waging the cold war. In a 1990 letter to the Nevada Division of Historic Preservation supporting the XF-90’s conservation, Donald Elle of the Department of Energy
noted: “Information derived from [the Tumbler-Snapper project] continues to be used in aircraft design and operational deployment today.”
Friedrichs met with radiation programs director James Seals and Fluid Tech, Inc. to figure out how to deconstruct, survey, and decontaminate each piece of the aircraft. Although Fluid Tech had experience in all types of contamination control, this was the first time the company would clean an aircraft.
Workers found the fuselage inhabited by a thriving colony of white-tail antelope squirrels. Because of the possibility the animals were carrying Hantavirus, Seals used a combination of bleach and sandblast to eradicate 40 years’ worth of nest debris. His crew, sweltering in full protective gear in the desert heat and carrying radiation detectors, scoured every surface, penetrating the smallest crevices to eradicate plutonium residue. During the summer, the crew disassembled and decontaminated the aircraft at night. “By midday it’s too hot,” Seals says of the desert, “even for the snakes.” Temperatures plummeted in the winter. Despite the extremes, the crew members completed the job within a year.
Along the way, they made a surprising discovery. The original Westinghouse engines had survived. “We’d never taken apart a jet engine before, but when we pulled them out, the turbines still turned,” says Seals. “You could push a turbine fin and spin those engines real easy.”