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Air Force Deploys Radiation Sniffing Jet to Japan

by John Reed on March 18, 2011

So, it’s being reported that the Air Force has sent one of its WC-135 Constant Phoenix jets to Japan to figure out just how much radiation is seeping from the nuclear reactors. They do this by deliberately flying through radioactive clouds and scooping up air samples to be analyzed. The jet’s mission, famously ordered by then Gen. Dwight Eisenhower in 1947, is to detect and analyze nuclear events around the world. At one time as many as ten of the planes prowled the skies, almost literally sniffing around for evidence of nuclear weapons tests by the Soviet Union and numerous other nations. The current fleet of two Boeing C-135 Stratolifter-based birds, a WC-135W and WC-135B have been used to monitor nuclear events everywhere from India and Pakistan to North Korea. This information could be used to verify reports that Japan’s nuclear problems are worse than Tokyo has been letting on.

Here’s what a spokesman from U.S. Forces Japan told Defense Tech about the plane’s deployment:

The WC-135 is one asset we are using in support of operations in
Japan. We are also flying airborne systems on the outside of some of our
helicopters and fixed-wing airplanes in order to monitor activity in the
area. Where we encounter radiological effects, we report those broadly,
both within our own forces and to the Japanese.

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{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

jamesb101 March 18, 2011 at 4:18 pm

The' Dog' jamesb called this one several days ago!

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Jacob March 18, 2011 at 9:28 pm

So if the KC-135 is almost too old to fly and needs urgent replacement, does this mean we'll need to replace the WC-135 soon as well?

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blight March 21, 2011 at 9:11 pm

Yes it does, though if these were specialized aircraft they might not have the airframe hours that a transport would. In the long run though, replacing them now would be preferrable to waiting and dithering and then replacing them later at great haste and great expense.

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jamesb101 March 18, 2011 at 10:05 pm

probably not….these a/c are not in the publics eye….

but there are a whole lot of 767's that could be put back in service from the Arizona's desert…..

Right?

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Ben March 19, 2011 at 7:12 am

The KC-135s need replacing because they were flying airborne alert missions for Strategic Air Command on a daily basis for 40 years.

The WC-135s only fly when there is a nuclear incident that needs airborne monitoring.

With the spare parts from other retired C-135 variants, the WC-135s could probably keep flying until they are made obsolete by other methods.

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blight March 21, 2011 at 9:10 pm

Considering the military was letting contracts to replace the KC-135 transport, it stands to reason that they should move all the other -135 functions to the new airframe.

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Jeannie March 19, 2011 at 2:06 pm

Does anybody in the Pentagon care about the pilots that have to fly into the radiation clouds to test for radiation levels? Where is a drone that could do the same thing and not put aviators at risk?. Nuclear radiation shreds the DNA of those exposed. Googlel Chernobyl and see photos of the off-spring of those exposed. What has the Pentagon been doing all these years since the first nuclear bomb was dropped and levels had to be measured by pilots back then? Have they been playing golf at the country club, drinking their favorite alcoholic beverages and eating their gourmet meal of prime rib and asparagus?

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Ontos March 19, 2011 at 8:39 pm

It doesn't really work like that…

First, the aircraft is pressurized, so there's no danger of inhalation or ingestion or radioactive particles to the crew.

Second, most forms of radiation will be defeated by nothing more than a thin layer of metallic material, or plastic (due to the hydrocarbons).

Third, given the real-time nature of the radiation detection gear on board, the crew would have sufficient warning to change course/RTB if radiation levels in the cabin started approaching dangerous levels.

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blight March 21, 2011 at 9:09 pm

The radiation is low-level, and the aircraft isn't going to be in the area long.

If the military was flying aircraft into A-bomb test sites like they used to in the '50s (and back then they marched /infantry/ into the mushroom clouds) I would agree that such a use of military forces is kind of…dangerous?

As mentioned in other comments, at high altitude flights (eg U-2 altitudes) pilots lose much of the ozone's protection from radiation from outer space…

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elizzar March 20, 2011 at 11:46 am

isn't it also the case that general air flight (ie. military or civilian) exposes passengers and crew to higher than normal radiation levels resulting from solar activity in the high atmosphere? i'm sure that was in one of my old uni classes!
the points ontos makes are very valid, the damage from radiation is much worse if it gets inside the body from inhalation of particles / ingestion in contaminated food (which is being reported in japan, milk and fruit i believe?) – the human skin alone is able to protect from alpha particles penetrating for instance, so by having a sealed, pressurised environment the air crew should be pretty safe.

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