WC-135R Constant Phoenix makes first European deployment

13/04/2023

April 13th saw a shock arrival into Mildenhall in the form of Boeing WC-135R Constant Phoenix, the newest Nuke Sniffer in USAF service. This aircraft is the 1st of 3 planned to replace the aging WC-135Ws, with the last one having been withdrawn from use in September 2022. Naturally, the R variant is a much more modern aircraft, despite only being brought into service 3 years after the recently retired airframe! The most noticeable difference between the R and the W is the bigger and less smoky CFM-56 engines. It also features an updated glass cockpit. All in all, it should be a whole lot more reliable than the W!

As you may have noticed, I referred to the aircraft in the last paragraph as a 'Nuke Sniffer', this is because the purpose of the WC-135 is to collect nuclear particles as part of the Limited Nuclear Test Ban Treaty 1963, which prohibits any nation from performing nuclear weapon testing above ground. These are the only aircraft in USAF service capable of air sampling operations. 

The USAF made the decision in 2018 to convert 3 existing KC-135Rs into WC-135Rs, as the WC-135W was due to be replaced. In 2019, 64-14836 arrived at L3 Technologies in Greenville, Texas, for conversion into a Constant Phoenix. Following conversion, the aircraft successfully performed its maiden flight in June 2022 and was delivered to the Air Force a month later. As it stands, there are delays in Greenville. The 2nd aircraft was due to be delivered in Winter 2022 and the 3rd in Summer 2023, but, as of April 15th, aircraft number 2 (64-14831) has only just made its maiden flight, which means delivery should theoretically be sometime in May. 64-14829 should be the other aircraft for conversion. 

The WC-135 fleet flies with the 45th Reconnaissance Squadron, 55th Wing based at Offutt Air Force Base in Nebraska

Seen below is aircraft 64-1436 arriving into Mildenhall from Offutt. A well-timed trip away meant I was in a prime place to catch this fantastically interesting aircraft on its European maiden deployment. A quick check of flight tracking websites on the morning of April 13th showed the aircraft tracking across southern Canada as COBRA36. I didn't want to get my hopes up too much but it was facing the right direction for the UK, so that created a bit of excitement! I mean, it had to visit the UK sooner or later, right?!  A couple of hours later and we had confirmation that it was indeed due to land in Suffolk. Due to strong winds at Mildenhall, the crew failed to land the aircraft on the first attempt, which gave us spotters a second opportunity to photograph it! What incredible luck! And, at 12:07 the aircraft touched down.

Photos below show both WC-135W 61-2667 JAKE21 in the Mildenhall circuit on April 12th, 2022 and WC-135R 64-14836 COBRA36 arriving into Mildenhall on April 13th, 2023. 

USAF Boeing WC-135W 61-2667 JAKE21

USAF Boeing WC-135R 64-14836 COBRA36