Nukes vs. Airplanes

Between the F-80 and the F-104, a supersonic pioneer fought the Cold War…in its own way.

(Lockheed Martin)
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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.” 

In 2003, a C-5 transport flew the decontaminated XF-90 parts from the Nevada Test Site to Wright-Patterson Air Force Base. It will take a year to reassemble the aircraft, says restoration division chief Roger Deere, who will prepare the airplane for exhibition. (While the XF-90 awaits restoration, visitors can see the fighter by taking a special behind-the-scenes tour.)

Although one aircraft on the Nevada Test Site, a B-17 bomber, was rebuilt and flown out, Friedrichs was hesitant to see someone try to fully restore the XF-90. “When you only have one left, you really don’t want to take the chance of flying it and possibly losing it,” he says. Instead, says Deere, “The exhibit will tell the story that the XF-90 has been through three nuclear blasts.” He admits, “It would be a major chore to restore it to a good, decent-looking airplane.” Instead, says Friedrichs, the public will see the XF-90 “exactly as it sat out here in the desert for half a century.”  

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