Offutt Aif Force Base (AFB) officially welcomed its second refurbished WC-135R Constant Phoenix surveillance aircraft, commonly known as “nuke-sniffers,” to its fleet as tail number 64-14831 arrived on May 11, 2023.
According to a 55th Wing Public Affairs news release, the first WC-135R, tail number 64-14836, was delivered in July. This is the second of three the 55th Wing will receive as the Air Force modifies KC-135R Stratotankers to replace the now retired WC-135C/W fleet.
The 55th Wing’s mission to detect atmospheric radiation, particularly from events such as North Korean weapons tests or nuclear submarine bases in the Russian Arctic, in support of the 1963 Limited Nuclear Test Ban Treaty.
“We’re really pleased about what 836 has provided to us and very excited now to have a second jet,” said Lt. Col. Chris Crouch, 45th Reconnaissance Squadron commander. “831 adds capability and eases our decision-making burden as far as balancing operations and training.”
The WC fleet is operated by the 45th RS and 21st Surveillance Squadron, Det 1 to support national global atmospheric collection missions.
“The fact that 831 matches 836 exactly from nose to tail, I expect us to have a much more fluid, efficient and better operations than what we had before with the two-legacy aircraft,” said Lt. Col. Sean Orme, Det. 1 commander. “I’m very excited.”
Originally delivered to the Air Force in 1964, tail 831 most recently flew with the Arizona Air National Guard’s 161st Air Refueling Wing.
After being converted by defense contractor L3Harris under the supervision of the 645th Aeronautical Systems Group, better known as Big Safari, 831 arrives to Offutt with a brand-new cockpit and the same four high bypass turbofan engines as 836 as well as the rest of the wing’s 135 fleet.
“We’re now able to go further with less support, which makes it easier to go to places we’ve never operated out of,” Crouch said. “These aircraft really expand our capabilities.”
“We’ve had multiple successful deployments with 836 and far fewer maintenance issues than we had with the old fleet,” Orme said. “We can do so much more now.”
The third and final WC-135R is scheduled to be delivered sometime this fall.
As reported by Alert 5, the arrival of 64-14831 doubles the Wing’s ability to take air samples and detect atmospheric radiation. Prior to this, if an event happened in both the Pacific and Europe, the Wing had to choose which to respond to. With the new aircraft, they now have the option to respond to both. The mission, Constant Phoenix, is operated by the 45th Reconnaissance Squadron.
The WC-135R plays a critical role in detecting and monitoring atmospheric radiation. Equipped with sensing pods on each side of the fuselage over the wing, filters inside the pods can capture tiny particles from a nuclear blast, providing analysts with critical information about the composition of the bomb or other radiation source. The aircraft has also been fitted with compressors that channel air samples into tanks for further study.
The total cost of converting the three aircraft is $218 million, appropriated by Congress in 2018 and 2019 at the urging of Nebraska’s congressional delegation. The new aircraft replaces two 60-year-old WC-135s with outdated engines and avionics that had poor maintenance records.
Photo credit: Nicholas Harnack / U.S. Air Force
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