WC-135 Constant Phoenix
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A WC-135 Constant Phoenix on takeoff
Role Atmosphere testing related to nuclear incidents
Manufacturer Boeing Military Airplanes Division
Introduction December 1965
Status 2 aircraft in service[citation needed]
Primary user United States Air Force
Number built 14 (10 converted C-135B, one converted EC-135C, three converted KC-135R)
Developed from C-135 Stratolifter
Variants OC-135B Open Skies

The WC-135 Constant Phoenix is a special-purpose aircraft derived from the Boeing C-135 Stratolifter and used by the United States Air Force. Its mission is to collect samples from the atmosphere for the purpose of detecting and identifying nuclear explosions. It is also informally referred to as the "weather bird"[1] or "the sniffer" by workers on the program and international media respectively.[2]

Operational history

A WC-135B at Fairford in 1988. This aircraft remains in service as a WC-135W.
A WC-135B at Fairford in 1988. This aircraft remains in service as a WC-135W.
The same aircraft seen at RAF Alconbury in 1992
The same aircraft seen at RAF Alconbury in 1992

The WC-135 was introduced in December 1965, replacing Boeing WB-50 aircraft in the weather-reconnaissance and air-sampling mission.[3] Ten aircraft were initially converted from C-135B transport aircraft and were placed in service with the 55th Weather Reconnaissance Squadron at McClellan Air Force Base, California, with the Military Airlift Command (MAC). Detachments were located at various bases throughout the United States and worldwide. The aircraft occasionally took on other roles throughout their careers; several aircraft were temporarily assigned to the 10th Airborne Command and Control Squadron at RAF Mildenhall in the late 1980s and early 1990s as training aircraft so that the unit could slow the accumulation of flight hours on its EC-135Hs,[4] while others served as staff transports on an as-needed basis.

Upon retirement from frontline weather reconnaissance service in the early 1990s, five were retained for further use. Serial no. 61-2666 was converted to an NC-135 and remains in service as a testbed for RC-135 equipment upgrades. Serial no. 61-2667 was upgraded to a WC-135W, given the project name Constant Phoenix, and remains in service with the 45th Reconnaissance Squadron at Offutt Air Force Base, Nebraska. Serial no. 61-2674 was converted to the first OC-135B Open Skies observation aircraft, reentering service in 1993. It was later stored in 1997 and replaced with two additional aircraft also converted from WC-135s.[5]

In 1998, a former EC-135C, serial no. 62-3582, was converted into a WC-135C, also designated Constant Phoenix.

In April 2018 it was announced that three KC-135R tanker aircraft would be converted as WC-135R Constant Phoenix aircraft to replace the two aircraft operated by the 45th Reconnaissance Squadron. The first aircraft is scheduled to be converted by L3 Technologies at Greenville, Texas starting in September 2019.[6]

In November 2020, serial no. 62-3582, dubbed "Lucifer's Chariot," was retired during a ceremony at Offutt Air Force Base, Nebraska. During its 56 year career, it amassed 29,680 flight hours and 72,251 landings.[7]

In June 2022, the first of three planned aircraft (serial number 64-14836) completed its maiden test flight, and was delivered to the 55th Wing on 11 July.[8][9]

Mission

The WC-135B and WC-135W Constant Phoenix atmospheric-collection aircraft support national-level intelligence consumers by collecting particulate debris and gaseous effluents from accessible regions of the atmosphere in support of the Limited Nuclear Test Ban Treaty of 1963.

Features

The Constant Phoenix's modifications are primarily related to the aircraft's on-board atmospheric collection suite, which allows the mission crew to detect radioactive debris "clouds" in real time. The aircraft is equipped with external flow-through devices to collect particulates on filter paper and a compressor system for whole air samples collected in high-pressure holding spheres. Despite the different designations, both the C and W carry the same mission equipment (similar to the RC-135V and W aircraft).

The interior seats 33 people, including the cockpit crew, maintenance personnel, and special equipment operators from the Air Force Technical Applications Center. On operational sorties, the crew is minimized to just pilots, navigator, and special-equipment operators, to reduce radiation exposure to mission-essential personnel only.

Vela Incident

WC-135B aircraft flew 25 sorties in 1979 to try to ascertain whether a double flash in the South Atlantic that was detected by a Vela satellite was a nuclear weapons test,[10] however, the result was inconclusive.

Iran

The Constant Phoenix aircraft was active the day after Iran conducted Operation Martyr Soleimani, sending missiles into Al Asad Air Base in Al Anbar Governorate, western Iraq on January 8, 2020.[11]

North Korea

On October 6, 2006, Japan's Kyodo News agency reported that a US military aircraft, equipped to detect radiation from a nuclear test, took off from southern Japan. This was believed to be part of US efforts to prepare to monitor a North Korean nuclear test.

On October 9, 2006, North Korea's official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) reported that the country had performed a successful underground nuclear test.

On October 13, 2006, CNN reported: "The U.S. Air Force flew a WC-135 Constant Phoenix atmospheric collection aircraft on Tuesday to collect air samples from the region. A preliminary analysis of air samples from North Korea shows 'radioactive debris consistent with a North Korea nuclear test', according to a statement from the office of the top U.S. intelligence official. The statement, from the office of Director of National Intelligence John Negroponte, was sent to Capitol Hill but not released publicly. CNN obtained it from a congressional source. The national intelligence office statement said the air samples were collected Wednesday, and analysis found debris that would be consistent with a nuclear test 'in the vicinity of Punggye' on Monday. The South Korean Defense Ministry told CNN that the United States has informed it that radioactivity has been detected." The aircraft was based at Offutt AFB and was sent to Kadena Air Base on Okinawa to operate during the sampling missions.[12]

On June 17, 2009, JoongAng Daily reported, in reference to a purported May 25 nuclear test by North Korea: "The U.S. Air Force twice dispatched a special reconnaissance jet, the WC-135 Constant Phoenix from Kadena Air Base in Okinawa, Japan, to collect air samples."[13]

On November 23, 2010, Sankei Shimbun reported that a WC-135 had been moved to Kadena Air Base in September 2010, in anticipation of a North Korean nuclear test.[14]

On January 31, 2013, the WC-135W was reported to be conducting surveillance flights out of Kadena Air Base in anticipation of another North Korean nuclear test.[15]

On January 6, 2016, the United States Air Force confirmed plans to soon deploy the WC-135 to test for radiation near North Korea to examine North Korea's claim that they had successfully conducted a hydrogen-bomb test on January 5 (EST).[16]

On September 8, 2016, it was reported that the WC-135 would soon begin surveillance flights near the Korean Peninsula[17] after South Korean officials confirmed that North Korea conducted its fifth nuclear test at approximately 0:30 UTC.[18]

On April 12, 2017, it was deployed to Okinawa amid rising tensions with North Korea. North Korea conducted a missile test on April 3, 2017.[19]

On May 19, 2017, two Chinese Su-30 fighter jets intercepted a WC-135 over the East China Sea, prompting a formal complaint from the Pentagon.[20]

Japan

On March 17, 2011, CNN reported that the WC-135W had been deployed from Offutt Air Force Base in Nebraska to Eielson Air Force Base in Alaska. From there it assisted in detecting radioactive materials in the atmosphere around Japan, monitoring radioactivity released from the Fukushima I Nuclear Power Plant caused by the magnitude 9.0 earthquake and subsequent tsunami of March 11, 2011.[21][22][23]

Europe

In 1986, multiple WC-135Bs were deployed to Europe to help monitor the air after the Chernobyl disaster.[24][25]

On February 17, 2017, it was reported that the WC-135C had been deployed to RAF Mildenhall. It was conjectured that this came in response to several reports of anomalous levels of iodine-131 coming from the Norwegian-Russian Border. As of April 10, 2017, there was no official cause of the iodine-131 release.[26][27][28]

Also by the end of July and in early August 2021 a WC-135W deployed to Europe and carried out measurements over the Baltic Sea and Sweden, using the callsign JAKE21. A connection is suspected with the technical problems of the Russian Oscar-II-class submarine Orel, which subsequently had to be tugged back.[29]

On February 7, 2022, a WC-135W Constant Phoenix (Reg. 61-2667, Mode-S hex code AE0941) using callsign JAKE21 was observed on various publicly accessible flight trackers conducting a 14 hour round trip from RAF Mildenhall to the Eastern Mediterranean south of Cyprus.[30] The same aircraft was also observed over the Baltic Sea on the 22nd of the same month, again using public flight trackers. On March 28, 2022, the same aircraft was again observed on public flight trackers, this time flying a brief mission up and down the East coast of Great Britain. [31] On April 28, 2022, the same aircraft flew a similar mission up and down the East coast of England and Scotland, again using the callsign JAKE21 [32]

Middle East

On March 1, 2021, WC-135W PYTHN58 seen over Persian Gulf.[33]

Variants

Operators

 United States

Specifications

General characteristics

Performance

See also

Related development

Aircraft of comparable role, configuration, and era

Related lists

References

  1. ^ Cenciotti, David (April 12, 2017). "U.S. Air Force deploys WC-135 "nuclear sniffer" plane to Japan to monitor North Korea's possible nuke weapons tests".
  2. ^ Johnson, Jesse (May 20, 2017). "China denies intercept of 'nuke-sniffer' plane was unsafe, says U.S. must halt surveillance flights". The Japan Times.
  3. ^ Harper, John. "WC-135 Constant Phoenix".
  4. ^ "Aviation Photo #0179969: Boeing WC-135B (717-158) - USA - Air Force". Airliners.net.
  5. ^ Hopkins III, Robert S. (2017). The Boeing KC-135 Stratotanker; More Than a Tanker. Crecy Publishing Limited. p. 289. ISBN 978-1-91080-901-3.
  6. ^ a b Air Force Times "Air Force to start transforming tankers into WC-135 "nuke sniffers" in FY19" dated April 26, 2018
  7. ^ Liewer, Steve (November 16, 2020). "55th Wing retires cranky plane — dubbed 'Lucifer's Chariot' — in Offutt ceremony". Omaha World Herald. Retrieved November 17, 2020.
  8. ^ HELFRICH, EMMA. "Air Force's First 'New' Constant Phoenix Nuke-Sniffing Jet Has Flown". The Drive Warzone. Retrieved July 4, 2022.
  9. ^ "Team Offutt welcomes first WC-135R to its fleet". Retrieved July 12, 2022.
  10. ^ "History of the Air Force Technical Applications Centre, Patrick Airforce Base, Florida: Volume 1" (PDF). United States Airforce via National Security Archive. May 4, 2006. Retrieved August 25, 2008.
  11. ^ @ZaesADSB (January 8, 2020). "Constant Phoenix out of Offutt. Nuke..." (Tweet) – via Twitter.
  12. ^ Timesonline.co.uk, Cold War aircraft searches the sky for proof of test.
  13. ^ joongangdaily.joins.com, U.S. finds that North test in May was nuclear.
  14. ^ "U.S. Moves Spy Aircraft in Preparation for N.Korean Nuke Test". The Chosun Ilbo (English Edition). November 24, 2010. Retrieved January 8, 2016.
  15. ^ Park Hyun and Jeong Nam-ku (January 31, 2013). "Clinton still hoping North Korea won't conduct a nuclear test". The Hankyoreh. Retrieved February 13, 2013.
  16. ^ Lamothe, Dan (January 6, 2016). "This is the Air Force radiation sniffer plane deploying after North Korea's nuclear test". Washington Post. Retrieved January 8, 2016.
  17. ^ Lendon, Brad. "US to fly 'radiation sniffer' jet off Korea". CNN.
  18. ^ Katie Hunt; K. J. Kwon; Jason Hanna. "North Korea claims successful test of nuclear warhead". CNN.
  19. ^ "Nuke-sniffer aircraft arrives on Okinawa as tensions rise on Korean peninsula". Stars and Stripes. Retrieved April 12, 2017.
  20. ^ "Chinese fighter flies inverted over US Air Force jet". CNN. Retrieved May 19, 2017.
  21. ^ "Japan quake tsunamiThis Just In". CNN. March 16, 2011.
  22. ^ "Cosmic Log - U.S. boosts radiation-sniffing system". March 19, 2011. Archived from the original on March 19, 2011.
  23. ^ "FOIA – 2011-0118/0119/012" (PDF). Nuclear Regulatory Commission. January 26, 2012.
  24. ^ "Constant Phoenix: After Decades of Service, a Little Recognition at Last".
  25. ^ "WC-135 Constant Phoenix > U.S. Air Force > Fact Sheet Display". www.af.mil. Retrieved April 18, 2017.
  26. ^ "U.S. Air Force deploys WC-135 nuclear sniffer aircraft to UK as spike of radioactive Iodine levels is detected in Europe". The Aviationist. February 19, 2017. Retrieved April 12, 2017.
  27. ^ Bertrand, Pierre (February 23, 2017). "Europe baffled by "recent release" of radioactive Iodine-131". euronews. Retrieved April 12, 2017.
  28. ^ Rogoway, Tyler. "Has There Been A "Nuclear Incident" In The Arctic?".
  29. ^ Steinke, Sebastian (August 6, 2021). "Suche nach nuklearen Partikeln vor Bornholm?: USAF schickt Spürflugzeug über die Ostsee". www.flugrevue.de (in German). Retrieved August 6, 2021.
  30. ^ @belokombe (February 7, 2022). "Callsign: #JAKE21Boeing WC-135 Constant Phoenix of United States Air Force Reg: 61-2667" (Tweet) – via Twitter.
  31. ^ @belokombe (March 28, 2022). "Callsign: #JAKE21Boeing WC-135 Constant Phoenix of United States Air Force Reg: 61-2667" (Tweet) – via Twitter.
  32. ^ Twitter https://twitter.com/gdarkconrad/status/1519675074739113984. Retrieved April 28, 2022. ((cite web)): Missing or empty |title= (help)
  33. ^ "Two days after a nonstop flight from Offutt AFB, OLIVE14, now PYTHN58, is on task above the skies of the Persian Gulf. WC-135W activity is always an interesting development. Especially in a region like the Persian Gulf". Twitter. Retrieved March 1, 2021.
  34. ^ Trevithick, Joseph (February 14, 2018). "The US Air Force Wants a Trio of More Modern WC-135R Nuke Sniffing Planes". The Drive. Retrieved July 1, 2022.
  35. ^ Helfrich, Emma (June 30, 2022). "Air Force's First 'New' Constant Phoenix Nuke-Sniffing Jet Has Flown". The Drive. Retrieved July 1, 2022.
  36. ^ "Login • Instagram". www.instagram.com. Retrieved July 12, 2022. ((cite web)): Cite uses generic title (help)
  37. ^ Pike, John. "55th Wing [55th WG]".
  38. ^ Lednicer, David. "The Incomplete Guide to Airfoil Usage". m-selig.ae.illinois.edu. Retrieved April 16, 2019.

General

Public Domain This article incorporates public domain material from the United States Air Force website https://www.af.mil.