Nuclear Air Sampling Aircraft WC-135 Constant Phoenix On Display at Patrick Air Force Base

WC-135 Constant Phoenix routinely conducts air sampling missions over the Pacific Ocean

The aircraft that performs atmospheric sampling for the Air Force Technical Applications Center was on display for invited guests to get a glimpse into how AFTAC personnel perform their nuclear treaty monitoring mission. (AFTAC image)

BREVARD COUNTY • PATRICK AIR FORCE BASE, FLORIDA – The aircraft that performs atmospheric sampling for the Air Force Technical Applications Center was on display for invited guests to get a glimpse into how AFTAC personnel perform their nuclear treaty monitoring mission.

Based out of Offutt AFB, Neb., the WC-135 Constant Phoenix routinely conducts air sampling missions over the Pacific Ocean, Bay of Bengal, Mediterranean, Polar Regions, Indian Ocean, and off the coasts of South America and Africa in support of the Limited Test Ban Treaty of 1963.

The LTBT prohibits nuclear weapons tests or explosions in the atmosphere, in outer space or underwater. The treaty does not ban tests underground, but it does prohibit explosions if they cause radioactive debris to permeate beyond the territorial boundaries of the country responsible for the test.

To verify compliance with the treaty, signatories agree to a system of controls and inspections aimed at limiting nuclear weapon test explosions. One way to verify compliance is to conduct background collections in the atmosphere.

Staff Sgt. Theodore “TJ” Bencoter, a special equipment operator with the Air Force Technical Application Center’s Detachment 1 at Offutt AFB, Neb., explains to visitors how the aircraft collects air samples when flying in an area where nuclear debris may be present. (U.S. Air Force photo by Susan A. Romano)

The WC-135 crew of special equipment operators operate a suite of collection devices that are housed in the main body of the aircraft.

One is an external flow-through device called a U1B foil. Similar to how a traditional jukebox operates, filter paper is cycled through the foil into the airstream as the aircraft flies through an area where radioactive debris may be present. Simultaneously, large high-pressure spheres collect whole air samples through an onboard compressor system.

Once the collections are complete, the spheres and filter papers are sent to AFTAC’s network of laboratories for analysis.

Staff Sgt. Theodore “TJ” Bencoter, a special equipment operator with the Air Force Technical Applications Center’s Detachment 1 at Offutt AFB, Neb., reviews technical collection information aboard the WC-135 Constant Phoenix. (U.S. Air Force photo by Susan A. Romano)

“The aircraft doesn’t routinely fly near Patrick, so any time we can seize the opportunity to showcase the jet to our workforce, we take it,” said Lt. Col. Matthew Morello, 21st Surveillance Squadron commander. “We think it’s important for people who are involved in the day-to-day AFTAC mission to see how their work plays a role in our airborne collection operations.”

The Air Force has two WC-135 aircraft in its inventory – both based at Offutt AFB.

“While the jets themselves and flight crew of the Constant Phoenix fall under 55th Wing at Offutt, the SEOs belong to AFTAC,” said Col. Jon VanNoord, 709th Surveillance and Analysis Group commander.

Tech. Sgt. David Suberlak, a special equipment operator with the Air Force Technical Applications Center’s Detachment 1 at Offutt AFB, Neb., examines the inner workings of a U1B foil, the device that cycles filter paper within the foil as the aircraft flies through an area where radioactive debris may be present. (U.S. Air Force photo by Susan A. Romano)

“To correctly position the aircraft takes a team effort between the flight deck and the SEOs. It’s not often you find a junior noncommissioned officer telling the commissioned officer piloting the plane where to fly the aircraft, but that’s the case when we receive operational taskings. Our SEOs are typically junior to mid-grade NCOs who use a variety of methods to determine the optimal patterns the jet should fly to get the best collects.”

Nearly 350 people toured the Constant Phoenix while it was on the ground a Patrick.

“A big thank you to the crew and maintainers from the 55th for their support and participation in the tour,” said VanNoord. “We couldn’t have done it without their assistance.”

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