Losses and Aviation Safety

‘I could see the bones in my hands.’ F-84 pilot tells the story of when he flew into the blast radius of an atmospheric nuclear test to see its effect on his aircraft

Test Pilot Norvin C “Bud” Evans flew his specially modified F-84 into the blast radius of atmospheric nuclear tests to see their effect on the sturdiest aircraft in the USAF inventory in 1956.

In the aftermath of World War II and during the height of the Cold War – between 1946 and 1962 – the US detonated more than 200 above-ground and undersea nuclear bombs.

Hundreds of thousands of American soldiers watched nuclear bomb tests during World War II and the Cold War.

As we have already explained most of them were pilots.

The following quotations are from Air Force Test Pilot Norvin C “Bud” Evans whose mission was to fly his specially modified F-84 into the blast radius of atmospheric nuclear tests to see their effect on the sturdiest aircraft in the US Air Force (USAF) inventory in 1956.

The full article can be found as “Nuke The Pilot” in Air & Space Magazine 2013.

‘Although it was vastly more powerful than the bombs dropped on Japan at the end of World War II, Mohawk, at 360 kilotons, was an airburst atomic bomb considered only a low risk to pilots flying near the site of its detonation.

‘Following my last-minute briefing, I lifted off into the black sky. It was always about as lonely a time as I have ever spent. About 10 minutes later, I closed my protective hood and continued flying on instruments to the test site over northern Enewetak Atoll.

‘The countdown went perfectly and the radar controller’s commands were easy to follow. As zero approached, I pulled the black goggles down over my eyes and covered the lenses with my gloved left hand.

Detonation. Shards of brilliant light penetrated all the protective devices and severely pained my eyes for a few seconds. As the brilliance faded, I could see the bones in my hands. Suddenly I began to feel as if millions of long, hot needles were shooting through my body.

‘We did not have fire-resistant garb; I was wearing only a lightweight flightsuit. When I pushed the goggles up, instead of seeing the light fading the way it had in previous blasts, I had the horrible sensation of being on fire.

‘I wasn’t braced for the shock-wave impact. When it hit, I was affected more by the flaming debris in the cockpit than by the force of the impact.’

Evans continues;

‘In reviewing the flight, we found that the heat reflected off the overcast and onto my F-84 had burned away or wrinkled the skin on the flaps, stabilator, and ailerons. The glare shield above the instrument panel, and all of the black tape windings on the instrument lines behind it, were completely burned away. The hydraulic fluid that had leaked out around the rudder pedals had created other fires. The lens on the over-the-shoulder camera inside my protective hood had melted. Of the three layers of asbestos and aluminum cloth that made up the hood itself, two were incinerated.’

Evans concludes;

‘I continued to have the sensation of needles burning through my body for several weeks. Because of the overall classification of the Redwing tests, I was never allowed to see the data gathered from any of my missions. Nor was I ever given the radiation readings from the film badges I wore during the last five flights. Although we had been briefed that the maximum exposure we could safely receive was 100 milli-roentgens in six months, I had pointed out to the flight surgeon that I had been exposed to 100 on each of my first two flights. Whether the overexposure contributed to the life-threatening melanoma I developed seven months later, I’ll never know.’

Photo credit: U.S. Air Force and National Nuclear Security Administration / Nevada Site Office

Dario Leone

Dario Leone is an aviation, defense and military writer. He is the Founder and Editor of “The Aviation Geek Club” one of the world’s most read military aviation blogs. His writing has appeared in The National Interest and other news media. He has reported from Europe and flown Super Puma and Cougar helicopters with the Swiss Air Force.

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