Team Offutt welcomed a new aircraft to its fleet for the first time in decades when WC-135R Constant Phoenix tail number 64-14836 arrived at the Lincoln Airport July 11, 2022. This is the first of three WC-135R deliveries to the 55th Wing as the Air Force is modifying KC-135R Stratotankers to replace the aging WC-135C/W fleet. Operated and maintained by the 45th Reconnaissance Squadron in support of the 21st Surveillance Squadron, Detachment 1 global mission, it will serve as the Air Force’s newest atmospheric collection aircraft. Originally delivered to the Air Force in 1964 and most recently flown by the New Hampshire Air National Guard, the aircraft was modified to a WC-135R in Greenville, Texas, by the 645th Aeronautical Systems Group, better known as Big Safari. It arrives to Offutt with a brand-new cockpit and the same four high bypass turbofan engines as the rest of the wing’s 135 fleet.
“We have a jet here that the Air Force hasn’t seen before,” said Lt. Col. Chris Crouch, 45th RS commander. “This is like a KC-135 without a boom, so it’s even more aerodynamic. When you add the power of those engines and the lower weight of this jet, you have an aircraft that is much more fuel efficient. We will have a lot more range to get to op areas that we were never able to reach before.”
“This is a monumental moment for us and for AFTAC [Air Force Technical Applications Center],” said Col. Kristen Thompson, 55th Wing commander. “The WC is the truest definition of a low-density, high-demand platform in the Air Force. It’s arrival here at Lincoln as the first of three aircraft to be delivered is a game changer.”
In addition to its capabilities, this new jet also enables the 45th to open its aperture to a whole new group of aircrew members, which will help with deployment taskings. Also reveling in the jet’s new arrival is 21st SURS Det. 1, whose Airmen operate special equipment on the aircraft. Their mission is to collect particulates and gaseous effluents and debris from accessible regions of the atmosphere in support of the Limited Nuclear Test Ban Treaty of 1963. Historically, the WC-135R Constant Phoenix fleet has only consisted of two jets, so adding a third to the mix will be huge for the overall mission. The Fightin’ Fifty-Fifth retired one of its two WC-135C/Ws in November 2020. The last one, tail number 2667, will remain operational until this fall. The next WC-135R delivery is scheduled for sometime this winter, with the final jet arriving in the summer of 2023.
The WC-135 Constant Phoenix is a special-purpose aircraft derived from the Boeing C-135 Stratolifter and used by the United States Air Force. Its mission is to collect samples from the atmosphere for the purpose of detecting and identifying nuclear explosions. It is also informally referred to as the “weather bird” or “the sniffer” by workers on the program and international media respectively. The Constant Phoenix’s modifications are primarily related to the aircraft’s on-board atmospheric collection suite, which allows the mission crew to detect radioactive debris “clouds” in real time. The aircraft is equipped with external flow-through devices to collect particulates on filter paper and a compressor system for whole air samples collected in high-pressure holding spheres. Despite the different designations, both the C and W carry the same mission equipment (similar to the RC-135V and W aircraft).