Tag Archives: Boeing WC-135 Constant Phoenix

Wanna Know If A New North Korean Missile Test Is About To Take Place? Look For This U.S. Aircraft Online…

You can monitor online the U.S. RC-135S Cobra Ball aircraft used to track ballistic missiles reentry vehicles and warheads during the final phase of flight.

Early in the morning on Jul. 4, North Korea successfully tested an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) for the first time.

The ICBM, referred to as Hwasong-14, reached a height of 2,802 kilometers, according to the state-run Korea Central Television (KCTV). The missile was launched from Panghyon, in North Pyongan province, and flew into waters east of the Korean Peninsula after traveling for about 930 kilometers.

The latest missile launch, as well as the previous ones, was almost certainly monitored by the U.S. Forces deployed to the region, using a variety of aerial, ground-based, sea-going assets.

The U.S. Air Force relies on its small contingent of RC-135S Cobra Ball missile tracking aircraft. Based at Offutt Air Force Base, outside Omaha, Nebraska, and  flown by the 45th Reconnaissance Squadron, these intelligence gathering aircraft are often deployed where needed to track ballistic missiles reentry vehicles and warheads during the final phase of flight. The aircraft is equipped with a powerful radar array on the starboard side of the fuselage, just aft of the cockpit. Several optical quality windows are mounted on the starboard side as well, allowing infrared and visible spectrum cameras to record the warheads during their final moments of flight. A distinctive feature of the Cobra Ball is the black low-glare paint used on the starboard wing, to improve image quality and prevent glare during photography.

A Cobra Ball taking off from Kadena on May 31, 2016 (screengrab from YT video by okuchan2006)

Unsurprisingly, two Cobra Ball aircraft  (61-2662 and 61-2663) are currently deployed to Yokota Air Base, Japan, from where it is launched when there are signs of an imminent North Korean test. What is far more surprising is the fact that, in spite of their important role, RC-135S aircraft are among the military planes that can be tracked online by exploiting the signals broadcast by their Mode S/ADS-B transponders.

By observing the activities of the RC-135S in Japan you may have a pretty clear idea of what is happening or about to happen in North Korea. For instance, last night, the fact that the Cobra Ball was airborne from Yokota might suggest that the U.S. intelligence had detected activities at the launch site and was preparing to monitor the test. This is the reason why I tweeted the following (later confirmed by the news of the ICBM test):

And that was not the first time. Just a coincidence? Most probably not, considered that the Cobra Ball does not fly that much and almost all sorties tracked online in Japan coincided with North Korea’s tests.

Here are some examples:

On Apr. 15, North Korea test-fired an unidentified land-based missile from the naval base in Sinpo. An RC-135S was flying over Japan:

On May 13, North Korea test-fired an intermediate range ballistic missile, from a test site on the country’s West Coast. That launch reached a then-record altitude of around 2,100 kilometers (1,300 miles) and a Cobra Ball was airborne to watch and collect data:

On Jun. 20, a Cobra Ball and WC-135 Constant Phoenix “nuclear sniffer” flew over Japan. It was later unveiled that the spy satellites had detected new activity at the North Korean nuclear test site.

So, if you want to know when Kim Jong Un is preparing for a new test, you may try to look for a Cobra Ball or Constant Phoenix airborne over Japan on ADSBexchange or simply follow some of the Twitter accounts who constantly track such aircraft, such as our friend @CivMilAir who provided us with most of the updates on the RC-135 and WC-135 flights in the area.

 

Chinese Su-30 Flanker Jet Flies Inverted Over U.S. Nuclear Sniffer Plane Over The East China Sea

A Chinese fighter pilot performed a Top Gun stunt over a U.S. Air Force WC-135.

On May 17, a Chinese Su-30 Flanker rolled over the top of a U.S. Air Force WC-135C Constant Phoenix aircraft which was flying in international airspace above the East China Sea.

According to the CNN the Flanker belonged to a formation of two Chinese Su-30s that intercepted the WC-135 nuclear sniffer aircraft involved in a a routine mission in Northeast Asia.

The aircraft came within 150 feet of the WC-135 with one of the Su-30s flying inverted, directly above the American “nuke hunter” plane, in a stunt that was made famous by Top Gun movie.

“While we are still investigating the incident, initial reports from the U.S. aircrew characterized the intercept as unprofessional, ” said Air Force Lt. Col. Hodge in a statement.

The WC-135 Constant Phoenix aircraft is a Boeing C-135 transport and support plane derivative belonging to the 45th Reconnaissance Squadron from Offutt Air Force Base (with mission crews staffed by Detachment 1 from the Air Force Technical Applications Center) that is able to collect and analyze the fallout residue in real-time, helping to confirm the presence of nuclear fallout and possibly determine the characteristics of the warhead involved.

The aircraft has recently deployed to Kadena Air Base, Okinawa, Japan, close to the Korean peninsula, to monitor North Korea’s nuke weapons tests.

Throughout the afternoon, an WC-135W Constant Phoenix aircraft performs touch ‘n go landing exercises Feb. 12 at Offutt Air Force Base, Neb. (U.S. Air Force photo/Josh Plueger)

Not the first time

This is not the first time a Chinese or Russian fighter pilot performs a Top Gun-like stunt or aggressively maneuvers close to a U.S. aircraft.

In February 2017, a People’s Liberation Army Air Force KJ-200 and a U.S. Navy P-3 Orion aircraft were involved in what was defined by U.S. officials as an “unsafe” close encounter over the South China Sea.

Last year, on Apr. 29, 2016, a Russian Su-27 Flanker barrel rolled over the top of a U.S. Air Force RC-135 aircraft operating in the Baltic Sea. The Russian jet came within 25 feet of the U.S. intelligence gathering aircraft.

Another Su-27 had carried out the same dangerous maneuver on another US Rivet Joint over the Baltic on Apr. 14, 2016.

Previously, on Jan. 25, 2016 another U.S. RC-135 intelligence gathering jet was intercepted over the Black Sea by a Russian Su-27 Flanker that made an aggressive turn that disturbed the controllability of the RC-135.

On Apr. 7, 2015 another Su-27 flew within 20 feet of an RC-135U over the Baltic Sea.

On Apr. 23, 2015 a U.S. Air Force RC-135U Combat Sent performing a routine surveillance mission in international airspace over the Sea of Okhotsk, north of Japan, some 60 miles off eastern Russia was intercepted by a Russian Su-27 Flanker that crossed the route of the U.S. aircraft putting itself within 100 feet of the Combat Sent.

In 2014, a Chinese Flanker made a barrel roll over a U.S. Navy P-8 maritime surveillance plane 135 miles east of Hainan Island, a spot where a dangerous close encounter of another U.S. electronic surveillance plane with the Chinese Navy took place back in 2001: on Apr. 1, 2001, a U.S. Navy EP-3E with the VQ-1, flying an ELINT (Electronic Intelligence) mission in international airspace 64 miles southeast of the island of Hainan was intercepted by two PLAN (People’s Liberation Army Navy) J-8 fighters. One of the J-8s piloted by Lt. Cdr. Wang Wei, made two close passes to the EP-3 before colliding with the spyplane on the third pass. As a consequence, the J-8 broke into two pieces and crashed into the sea causing the death of the pilot, whereas the EP-3, severely damaged, performed an unauthorized landing at China’s Lingshui airfield.

The 24 crew members (21 men and three women), that destroyed all (or at least most of ) the sensitive items and data on board the aircraft, were detained by Chinese authorities until Apr. 11.

PLAAF Sukhoi Su-30MKK at Lipetsk-2 on Jul. 27, 2014 (Image credit: Dmitriy Pichugin)

 

U.S. Air Force deploys WC-135 “nuclear sniffer” plane to Japan to monitor North Korea’s possible nuke weapons tests

The WC-135C “nuke hunter” has deployed to Okinawa amid raising nuclear tensions with Pyongyang.

The U.S. Air Force WC-135C Constant Phoenix Nuclear explosion “sniffer” has arrived in Japan.

The aircraft was deployed to Kadena Air Base, Okinawa, to monitor Kim Jong Un nuke tests, the Nikkei media outlet reported based on talks with a senior Japan Self Defense Forces official.

The aircraft was supposed to arrive at its Forward Operating Base last month but it was forced to perform an emergency landing at Sultan Iskandar Muda airport in Banda Aceh, Indonesia, on its way to Japan, on Mar. 24, following an engine failure.

The two WC-135 Constant Phoenix aircraft in service today (out of 10 examples operated since the 1960s) are Boeing C-135 transport and support planes derivative belonging to the 45th Reconnaissance Squadron from Offutt Air Force Base, with mission crews staffed by Detachment 1 from the Air Force Technical Applications Center.

The Constant Phoneix, known as the “sniffer” or “weather bird” by its crews, can carry up to 33 personnel.

Constant Phoenix flies in direct support of the U.S. Atomic Energy Detection System, a global network of nuclear detection sensors that monitor underground, underwater, space-based or atmospheric events. As the sole agency in the Department of Defense tasked with this mission, AFTAC’s role in nuclear event detection is critical to senior decision makers in the U.S. government, says the Air Force.

“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 Tech. Sgt. Matthew Wilkens, a 9S100 and airborne operations section chief in a recent release. “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 very effective, concept.”

Effluent gasses are gathered by two scoops on the sides of the fuselage, which in turn trap fallout particles on filters. The mission crews have the ability to analyze the fallout residue in real-time, helping to confirm the presence of nuclear fallout and possibly determine the characteristics of the warhead involved.

This is not the first time the aircraft is moved close to the Korean peninsula in anticipation of Kim Jong Un rocket launches; moreover, the WC-135 has already been deployed to Japan back in 2011, when it was used to track radioactive activity around Fukushima following, a type of mission the aircraft had already flown in 1986 following the Chernobyl nuclear plant disaster in the Soviet Union.

The aircraft 62-3582 has recently completed a “tour” in Europe, arriving on Feb. 17, 2017 and conducting several missions both in the Barents Sea area and in the Mediterranean Sea until mid March. The pretty rare deployment to RAF Mildenhall, UK, amid raising concern for an alleged spike in Iodine levels around Norway, fueled speculations that the U.S. had sent the detection aircraft to investigate the reasons behind the radioactive levels detected in northern Europe at the beginning of January.

However, the “nuke hunter” plane was on a “pre-planned rotational deployment scheduled in advance,” according to the Air Force spokeswoman Erika Yepsen.

This time, with a U.S. aircraft carrier strike group heading to the Korean Peninsula, there is no doubt as to the aim of the deployment of the “sniffer” to Japan.

Image credit: Ken H / @chippyho via Wiki Commons

Salva

U.S. WC-135 nuclear sniffer airplane has left the UK heading towards Norway and the Barents Sea

The WC-135 Constant Phoenix has launched from RAF Mildenhall earlier today for a mission towards northern Europe and the Barents Sea. Interestingly, an RC-135W spyplane has launched from the same base on the same route. What’s their mission?

As you probably already know, on Feb. 17, 2017, U.S. Air Force WC-135C Constant Phoenix Nuclear explosion “sniffer,” serial number 62-3582, deployed to RAF Mildenhall, UK, using radio callsign “Cobra 55.”

Whereas it was not the first time the Constant Phoenix visited the British airbase, the deployment to the UK amidst growing concern about an alleged spike in iodine levels recorded in northern Europe fueled speculations that the WC-135 might be tasked with investigating the reason behind the released Iodine-131.

In fact, along with monitoring nuclear weapons testing, the WC-135 can be used to track radioactive activity, as happened after the Chernobyl nuclear plant disaster in the Soviet Union in 1986 and Fukushima incident back in 2011, by collecting particles and chemical substances in the atmosphere, days, weeks, or sometimes even month after they were dispersed.

Whilst the reason of the deployment has yet to be confirmed (actually, there are still contradictory reports about the spike in Iodine-131) the WC-135 has departed for its first mission since it arrived at Mildenhall: on Feb. 22, at around 11.50LT, the nuclear “sniffer” aircraft has departed for a mission towards Norway and the Barents Sea.

The WC-135C (radio callsign “Flory 58”) was supported by two KC-135 tankers (“Quid 524” and “525”)suggesting it had just started a very long mission and somehow accompanied, along the same route, by an RC-135W (“Pulpy 81”) and another Stratotanker (“Quid 513”).

It’s hard to guess the type of mission this quite unusual “package” has embarked on: investigating the alleged iodine spike? Collecting intelligence on some Russian nuclear activity? Something else?

Hard to say.

For sure, once the aircraft reached Aberdeen, eastern Scotland, they turned off their transponder becoming invisible to the flight tracking websites such as Flightradar24.com or Global.adsbexchange.com that use ADS-B, Mode S and MLAT technologies to monitor flights: a sign they were going operational and didn’t want to be tracked online.

H/T to @CivMilAir for the heads up and details