U.S. Air Force has for the first time conducted an air-sampling sortie outside the United States over the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of South America. An unusual flight by its WC-135R Constant Phoenix ‘nuke sniffer’ jet which is a converted KC-135 tanker. These types of aircraft conducts missions to gather data that can be used to help keep watch for unusual spikes in atmospheric radiation.
The aircraft WC-135R, which has the serial number 64-14836, followed a route that took it west out of the Caribbean Sea and into the southern end of the Atlantic Ocean. It then followed a path off the coasts of Venezuela, Guyana, Suriname, French Guiana, and Brazil, before turning around and returning to Puerto Rico.
“This is… the first ‘OCONUS’ (outside the Continental United States) deployment for #836,” Susan Romano, the director of Public Affairs at the Air Force Technical Applications Center (AFTAC), confirmed to The War Zone in a statement. “The aircraft was able to take on more than 90,000 pounds of fuel – the largest air-to-air refueling onload for the jet since AFTAC and the 55th Wing at Offutt [Air Force Base], Nebraska, took delivery of #836.”
This particular flight was a so-called “baseline” collection mission to gather air samples that are then used to establish what atmospheric radiation levels should look like under normal conditions. Since its introduction in the 1960s, the fleet of WC-135s has conducted air sampling missions over the Far East (East and Southeast Asia), Indian Ocean, Bay of Bengal, Mediterranean Sea, the Polar regions, and off the coasts of South America and Africa. It has monitored high-profile nuclear incidents, like the Chernobyl nuclear power plant disaster of 1986. A WC-135W was also deployed to collect data on the nuclear tests conducted by India, Pakistan, and North Korea.
“This was the first WC-135 background sortie collection off the central east coast of South America in nearly 30 years,” Romano, the AFTAC spokesperson further confirmed to The War Zone. “Flying in a different geographical area helps establish a baseline of debris in the atmosphere, which is important to keeping the world safe.”
After years of aircraft failure, the USAF finally decided on a WC-135R conversion project officially announced in 2018, for which the service requested $208 million in its budget request for the Fiscal Year 2019, as per a report by The War Zone.
According to the budget request, the WC-135Rs will continue with the same sensor package. Still, it will feature a new CFM-56 turbofan engine that is far more reliable, supportable, and efficient than the old TF-33 Pratt & Whitney engine, which was a significant pitfall holding back the WC-135Ws from reliably carrying out air sampling missions globally.