New Nuke-Sniffing Jet Flies Off South America On First International Mission

The US Air Force has confirmed that the latest and most unusual flight of its WC-135R Constant Phoenix ‘nuke sniffer’, a modified KC-135, over the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of South America was first time driving. air samples outside the Continental United States. The Constant Phoenix aircraft are constantly on the job collecting data that can be used to help monitor unusual spikes in atmospheric radiation. Airplanes can also be used to help collect data after nuclear weapons tests or other radioactive events and to monitor the spread of potentially hazardous materials.

WC-135R, with serial number 64-14836, conducted this flight in cooperation with the US Southern Command (SOUTHCOM) on January 16, from Luis Muñoz Marin International Airport in Puerto Rico. The plane followed a course that took it west from the Caribbean Sea to the southern part of the Atlantic Ocean. It then followed a path off the coasts of Venezuela, Guyana, Suriname, French Guiana, and Brazil, before turning around and heading back to Puerto Rico.

The plane was in international airspace the entire time. Online flight tracking software indicated that at least one Air Force KC-10A Extender aerial refueling tank was used to support the mission.

“This is … the first ‘OCONUS’ (outside of the Continental United States) deployment of #836,” Susan Romano, Director of Public Affairs at the Air Force Base Applications Center (AFTAC), confirmed to Battlefield in a statement. “The aircraft was able to carry more than 90,000 pounds of fuel – the largest air-to-air payload for a jet from AFTAC and Offutt’s 55th Wing. [Air Force Base]Nebraska, ranked #836.”

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The flight was called a “baseline” mission to collect air samples used to determine what atmospheric radiation should look like under normal conditions. This is done primarily as part of the implementation of the Permanent Nuclear Test Ban Treaty of 1963, which prohibits signatories from conducting open nuclear weapons tests, including those in space and under water. The recent discovery of high levels of radiation may indicate a nuclear weapons test against the treaty, or by countries that are not part of the treaty, as well as other radiological events.

Members of the 45th Reconnaissance Squadron, part of the 55th Wing, fly and maintain the Constant Phoenix aircraft. The personnel of AFTAC’s 21st Maintenance Group are responsible for operating and maintaining the actual mission equipment aboard the aircraft.

The Air Force took delivery of 64-14836 in July 2022. The service said it expected to receive the second of three planned WC-135Rs by the end of last year, but it’s unclear if that happened. . The Air Force retired two older Constant Phoenix jets, the WC-135C and WC-135W, in 2020 and 2022, respectively.

“This was the first collection of WC-135 from the east coast of South America in almost 30 years,” Romano, the AFTAC spokesman confirmed. Battlefield. “Flying in different regions helps create a base of debris in the atmosphere, which is important to keep the world safe.”

However, this is not the only time Constant Phoenix flights have flown from Puerto Rico in cooperation with SOUTHCOM since the 1990s. One of the previous WC-135s made at least three such flights, collectively referred to as Coral Phoenix missions, in 2008, according to anonymous portions of the Air Force’s annual history. Combat Command (ACC) which the author obtained through the Freedom of Information Act. (FOIA).

A brief description of the three Coral Phoenix missions that one of the Air Force’s WC-135s flew from Puerto Rico in 2008, taken from an unedited copy of the annual history of ACC mandate for that year. USAF via FOIA

Flight 64-14836 from South America was also its second operational mission, overall, according to AFTAC’s Romano. The aircraft made its first air sampling sortie shortly after it was delivered in July last year from the Continental United States in cooperation with the US Northern Command (NORTHCOM).

Although 64-14836 is not new – the “64” in its serial number is the fiscal year it was purchased – it received several upgrades, including modern CFM-56 turbofan engines, to over the years. The older WC-135C/Ws were equipped with the inefficient and high-maintenance Pratt & Whitney TF-33 engines, a design that went out of production in 1985.

The TF-33s were often at the heart of safety and reliability issues for the first Constant Phoenix aircraft. For example, one of the previous WC-135s had to make an emergency landing in Aceh province of Indonesia in 2017 and spent a week there due to engine problems.

“I’m very proud of the Airmen who made this kind of collection,” Air Force Col. James A. Finlayson, director of AFTAC, said in a statement issued to Battlefield. “It takes a lot of coordination to coordinate all the moving parts in a job like this.”

“This work is important, not only for the United States, but for our partners and the citizens of the world who benefit from AFTAC’s analysis of space debris and collection samples,” Col. Finlayson continued. “Thank you to US Southern Command for their assistance and oversight.”

All that said, although it remains to be seen how many flights around Latin America are in the future of the 64-14836, the two types of jet in the last six months are only the beginning of its new mission of sniffing a nuke.

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