Offutt Air Force Base just doubled its fleet of radiation-monitoring planes.
The 55th Wing took delivery Wednesday of the second of three refurbished WC-135R surveillance aircraft, known informally as “nuke-sniffers.” The first arrived last July; the third is slated for delivery in the fall.
The new plane boosts the Wing’s ability to take air samples and detect atmospheric radiation from, say, North Korean weapons tests or nuclear submarine bases in the Russian Arctic in support of the 1963 Limited Nuclear Test Ban Treaty. The Air Force calls the mission Constant Phoenix.
“When we had one jet, if something happened in the Pacific and something happened in Europe, we had to choose,” said Lt. Col. Chris Crouch, commander of the 45th Reconnaissance Squadron, which operates the Constant Phoenix jets. “Now ... at least we have the option to respond to both.”
The former Arizona Air National Guard refueling tanker (tail number 64-14831) arrived with little fanfare after a delivery flight from Greenville, Texas, where it was converted by the defense contractor L3Harris under the supervision of the Air Force’s “Big Safari” program. Big Safari manages and supports special weapons systems aboard surveillance and reconnaissance aircraft.
The plane had been scheduled for delivery last winter. The 55th Wing declined to comment on the delay.
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.
They are replacements for two 60-year-old WC-135s with outdated engines and avionics that had among the worst maintenance records in an Air Force filled with aged aircraft. Both are now retired. One was so notoriously cranky and prone to breakdowns that 45th Squadron crew members called it “Lucifer’s Chariot” at a mock retirement ceremony in November 2020.
“Compared to the older jets, it’s a huge change,” said Lt. Col. Sean Orme, commander of the 21st Surveillance Squadron’s Offutt-based Detachment 1, which operates the radiation-detection gear.
The “new” Constant Phoenix planes aren’t really so new. All three rolled off Boeing’s assembly line in Renton, Washington, in August and September 1964, said Robert Hopkins III, a 55th Wing veteran and historian of Air Force reconnaissance flights. Each has about 25,000 to 27,500 flight hours, compared with between 29,500 and 36,000 for the now-retired WC-135s.
Though only two to three years newer than the aircraft they replace, all three were upgraded with new, quieter, turbofan engines in the early 1990s, and are equipped with newer avionics and flight controls.
That means most any 55th Wing pilot will be able to fly them.
“It’s brand-new on the inside, new equipment, new avionics,” Crouch said. “The mission-capable rates of these jets is just awesome.”
Hopkins said their prior service in the Air National Guard means they are in better shape than the 55th Wing workhorses. He said Guard tankers typically rack up fewer flight hours and are maintained by National Guard mechanics who care for the same aircraft for years, unlike in the active-duty Air Force.
“Offutt flies their jets hard,” he told The World-Herald in 2020. “Airplanes that come out of the Guard and Reserve have been pampered.”
During the conversion, the long aerial refueling booms have been removed from the former tankers, and the flight controls and avionics modernized to match the other 24 C-135 variant aircraft in the 55th Wing fleet.
In the back end, they have been 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, giving analysts critical information about the composition of the bomb or other radiation source.
The planes also have been equipped with compressors that channel air samples into tanks for further study.
Crouch and Orme said their crews have learned a lot since the delivery 10 months ago of the first updated WC-135R, tail number 64-14836.
“The first shift was more of the heavy lift,” Orme said. “We want to be sure the lessons learned on Eight-Three-Six will be applied on Eight-Three-One.”
The first WC-135R deployed for the first time in January, to Puerto Rico — an unusual place for 55th Wing jets to operate.
Orme declined to discuss the types of missions flown from the U.S. territory in the Caribbean but hinted that it could see more reconnaissance deployments.
“Puerto Rico is an option that could be exercised in the future,” he said. “We were able to hit some new ground.”
For the past month, the jet has been operating in Europe and the Middle East, according to information gathered from flight-tracking websites by a 55th Wing veteran who goes by the Twitter handle MeNMyRC.
On Friday, for example, it flew from a deployed base at RAF Mildenhall, England, over the western Mediterranean, off the coast of Algeria and Tunisia. Other recent sorties overflew the Barents Sea on April 17, the Black Sea on April 21, the Persian Gulf on April 26, and the eastern Mediterranean on May 5.
“From what I’ve been seeing, she’s been doing great over there,” Orme said.
Photos: Offutt Air Force Base through the years
Offutt Air Force Base is named for Lt. Jarvis Offutt — the first airman from Omaha killed in World War I.
The 55th Wing’s new WC-135R Constant Phoenix jet makes its first landing at Offutt Air Force Base on Wednesday after a delivery flight from Greenville, Texas. The aircraft, built in 1964, was formerly a KC-135R tanker with the Arizona National Guard.
Lt. Col. Sean Orme, left, and Lt. Col. Chris Crouch at Lincoln Airport in July 2022 with the first of three refurbished WC-135R Constant Phoenix jets — No. 64-14836 — delivered to the 55th Wing’s 45th Reconnaissance Squadron.
Air traffic control site FlightRadar24 captures the 55th Wing's newest "nuke-sniffer," a WC-135R Constant Phoenix radiation-detection jet, shortly before its first landing at Offutt Air Force Base Wednesday. The plane, tail number 64-14831, was delivered from Greenville, Texas, where the 59-year-old aerial tanker was converted for its new radiation-detection mission.