Air Force radiation “sniffer plane” to determine if North Korea tested hydrogen bomb

The WC-135W Constant Phoenix aircraft collects particulate and gaseous debris from the accessible regions of the atmosphere in support of the Limited Nuclear Test Ban Treaty of 1963. (U.S. Air Force photo)

As part of the U.S. military’s ongoing effort to determine what North Korea’s “provocative” nuclear bomb test really involved, the USAF will deploy a WC-135 ‘Constant Phoenix’ aircraft to test for radiation in the area.

The Air Force has two of the WC-135 jets that operate out of Offutt Air Force Base in Nebraska. They are the only aircraft in service that carry out air sample missions. “The four-engine Boeing jets are equipped with external devices that collect radioactive material from the atmosphere on filter paper,” according to an Air Force fact sheet.

On Tuesday, the Pentagon confirmed that the aircraft — which is a modified version of a C-135B or EC-135C Boeing airplane — is in fact collecting air samples and debris, the Washington Post reports.

The Constant Phoenix, also known as a nuclear “sniffer plane,” was commissioned back when the Air Force was still the Army Air Forces and Dwight D. Eisenhower was Army General. At that time, it was used to detect  atomic explosions worldwide. The WC-135 has carried out air sample missions routinely since 1986, when it played a key role in tracking radioactive debris, following the Chernobyl disaster.

While nuclear weapons experts remain skeptical, North Korea claims that it successfully tested a “miniaturized hydrogen nuclear device” on the morning of Jan 6.  “We’ll know for sure once the WC-135 gets air samples,” a defense official said.

Defense Secretary Ashton Carter and South Korean minister of defense Han Min-koo agree that North Korea’s provocations “should have consequences.”

Susan Romano, a spokeswoman at Offutt AFB said their testing center could not confirm North Korea’s claim, however, they did record “underground seismic activity” in the area where the explosion reportedly occurred.

Romano says the WC-135 typically flies “directly through a potential radioactive plume,”  but with protection from radioactivity incorporated into the plane, she says, airmen on board do not have to wear hazardous materials suits.


  • Michele graduated with a B.S. in Telecommunication from the University of Florida’s College of Journalism and Communications. She has spent numerous years working in the news industry in south Florida, including many positions ranging from being a news writer at WSVN, the Fox affiliate in Miami to being an associate news producer at WPLG-TV, the ABC affiliate in Miami. Michele has also worked in Public Relations and Marketing.

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