Special equipment operators from the Air Force Technical Applications Center's Detachment 1 visited Oct. 25 and invited base personnel to tour the detachment's flying workhorse, the WC-135 Constant Phoenix.
The detachment, which is located at Offutt AFB, Neb., is responsible for operating and maintaining the advanced atmospheric research equipment aboard the specially-configured WC-135 aircraft in support of the U.S. Atomic Energy Detection System.
USAEDS is a global network of nuclear detection sensors that monitor underground, underwater spaced based or atmospheric events. AFTAC is the sole Department of Defense agency tasked with operating the USAEDS for nuclear event detection, which is directly linked to the center's nuclear treaty monitoring mission.
The Air Force has two specially-configured WC-135s in its inventory. Interestingly, the jet that visited Patrick AFB, #667, was also the aircraft that was tasked to assist during Operation Tomodachi, the DoD's response to the earthquake and tsunami relief efforts in Japan in March 2011.
During the very early stages of the nuclear meltdown of the Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant on the Pacific coast of Japan, the WC-135 flew nine missions and analyzed 660 samples, which were forwarded to national laboratories for further examination and analysis. Fukushima was the largest nuclear disaster since Chernobyl in 1986, where the WC-135 also played a major role in tracking radioactive debris from that plant's disaster.
"One of the great success stories for Det. 1 was the fact that AFTAC's analysis of the Tomodachi airborne samples enabled our scientists to develop plume models that provided scientific evidence for senior leaders to make critical decisions regarding the evacuation of Americans in Japan," said Lt. Col. John Baycura, detachment commander. "We were able to collect, analyze and disseminate data that was considered the best in the nation - and was provided to the highest levels of our government."
Their efforts paid off: AFTAC's Tomodachi team was nominated for the prestigious Samuel J. Heyman Service to America medal, a national level award that recognizes significant contributions by those in federal service.
As people made their way through and around the aircraft on Patrick's flightline, crewmembers briefed visitors on the features and capabilities of the atmospheric collection suite, which allows the mission crew to detect radioactive 'clouds' in real time.
"Our aircraft is equipped with external flow devices that allow us to collect airborne particulate on filter paper and a compressor system for whole air samples," said Staff Sgt. Matt Wilkens, Det. 1 Noncommissioned Officer in Charge of current operations. "The particulate samples are collected using a device that works like an old Wurlitzer jukebox. An arm grabs the paper from its slot and moves it to the exterior of the fuselage. After exposure, it is returned to the filter magazine where a new paper is selected for use. It's a simple, yet effective, concept."
The WC-135 has been in the Air Force inventory since 1965 and currently supports the Limited Test Ban Treaty of 1963, which prohibits any nation from testing nuclear weapons above ground. The Constant Phoenix is the only aircraft in the USAF that conducts air sampling operations. The cockpit crews are from the 45th Reconnaissance Squadron at Offutt AFB.
"I was really impressed and really glad I had a chance to see the plane in person," said Yamilka Camacho, AFTAC Human Resources assistant. "I've been working at AFTAC for three years and knew what the Constant Phoenix' mission was, but getting to see it up close and listen to the crew talk about the equipment really put it all in perspective for me."
Article by Susan A. Romano, AFTAC Public Affairs