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.
Despite the Sniffer’s hardiness, money is what lifts its wings. The Constant Phoenix annual operating budget stands at $2.3 million, a pittance compared to expected and enormously expensive upgrades. So budget planners don’t see a realistic prospect of continuing the program as is. “The big rock in the road is the $29 million that we’ll need to re-engine the WC in 2003,” says Charles McBrearty, AFTAC director of materials technology. “There won’t be buckets of money rolling in. That’s why we’re planning now.”
Constant Phoenix was a creature of the cold war, born and bred because of superpower rivalries and threats to political stability. Ironically, the unpredictability of the post-cold-war world may be what ensures its survival.