They rarely receive much recognition – or even notice – but today the U.S. Air Force members who fly, maintain and support the WC-135C/W Constant Phoenix aircraft are in the news.
Their job is to sniff nuclear radiation in the atmosphere.
A Constant Phoenix WC-135 aircraft has been helping everyone in the world – nothing less than that – by sampling radioactive emissions from the earthquake-ravaged Fukushima-Dai Ichi nuclear plants near Sendai, Japan after the March 11 magnitude 9.0 earthquake and tsunami that ripped the Japanese homeland. Satellites in orbit couldn’t detect the radioactive plume from Fukushima’s reactors, so a WC-135 and a team headed by Col. John Hansen deployed to Eielson Air Force Base, Alaska, to begin operations near and over Japan.
“We’re out there at the front lines fighting these wars that we have going on,” Hansen told KETV-7 in Omaha. “But this is a case where we get to go out and help someone, so we’re all pumped up and ready to go.”
The Constant Phoenix program consists of just two aircraft and several dozen airmen. The planes – one each WC-135C and WC-135W – are cousins to the geriatric KC-135 Stratotanker. Constant Phoenix collects “particulate and gaseous effluents and debris from accessible regions of the atmosphere in support of the Limited Nuclear Test Ban Treaty of 1963,” according to a Pentagon fact sheet.
The 1963 treaty ended most above ground testing of atomic warheads. Constant Phoenix and its predecessors have been on the prowl to detect any rogue nation that cheats by detonating an atomic warhead in the atmosphere.
The Constant Phoenix cockpit crew comes from the 45th Reconnaissance Squadron. The “back cabin” technicians belong to Detachment 1, Air Force Technical Applications Center. Planes and people come under the 55th Wing, commanded by Brig. Gen. John N. T. Shanahan.
Unlike most of the 447 aircraft in the KC/RC/WC-135 fleet, which have been re-engined with F108-CF-201 high bypass turbofan engines, the two Constant Phoenix aircraft are still chugging along on their original TF33-P-5/9 turbojets.
Constant Phoenix was used in 1986 following the disaster at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in the Soviet Union.