Chernobyl, a look back


Verified SOF
Aug 18, 2007
San Antonio Texas
Written by a friend:

The bold face items are my additions.

One of the early story lines from the recent unpleasantness in Ukraine (aka Russian invasion) was the Russian drive to take control of several Ukrainian nuclear power plants, including Chernobyl, site of a huge explosion and massive radioactive release in 1986. Sadly, the stories continued when the invaders locked down the sites, effectively making a single work shift stay onsite to safely operate and protect the reactors. And these inexperienced Russian conscript soldiers were sent into the forest around the plant to dig defensive trenches and foxholes in some of the most contaminated soil in the world. I doubt if we will ever know the magnitude of their injuries.

We remember the missions in 1986 trying to define the dangers to the world by the accidental fire and explosions at Chernobyl. AFTAC, (Air Force Technical Applications Center) as a key player in the international monitoring community, played a very large role. The event gets 3 pages in the A Fifty Year Commemorative History of Long Range Detection, and a single page in the Technical Operations Division, Heritage Remembered. Both histories emphasize the high level interest our participation generated, and the overall success of airborne operations. MAC (Military Airlift Command, now Air Mobility Command) was tasked to provide WC-135B and WC-130E samplers, and SAC augmented with B-52 Giant Fish aircraft and U-2 high altitude missions. The LRD book notes a total of 42 missions flown, of which 32 had positive laboratory results.

We now know that the triggering event happened on April 26, 1986. The first that the Sampling community heard anything was on 29 April. I am going to relate some of my interactions from that day, and would very much like to hear from others who are “in the know”. I got two calls early that morning. One from the Pentagon saying that JCS had tasked a single WC-135 sortie to depart ASAP and fly our standard polar track mission to a location north of Norway, recovering at Mildenhall in the UK. We had JCS priority and a separate JCS funding code for the operation. A quick call to the 55th WRS confirmed that they had already been tasked by TOD (Techincal Operations Division) for the mission and that a crew was alerted and preparing to depart. I asked if they had additional assets available and requested that the squadron round up two additional crews who could fly direct to the UK in case they were needed. Of note is that I bypassed the 41st RWRW (Rescue Weather Reconaissance Wing) by talking direct to the squadron. I assumed (correctly) that the 55th was coordinating details with the Wing. The squadron told me that SAC/DO8 (their air refueling coordinators) had tasked an Eielson tanker to support the mission. One of the limiting factors in coordinating our missions is that much of the data was being passed through classified comms. My office at Scott AFB was well positioned because we had multi-layered secure phones available. I was part of 23rd Air Force, which controlled all Air Force Special Operations assets as well as Combat Rescue and Weather Recon. I could access STU I and II, and we had recently received a new Red Switch system that let us coordinate both up chain and down chain.

Shortly after I got off the phone with the 55th, AFTAC/DOR called. I was able to ask what the background was. They said that they had been notified through their international partners of radioactivity detected by several nuclear plants in Scandinavia. At first the plants feared that they had an internal leak, but then saw that the sensors triggered from outside their plant before the ones onsite, indicating that the radiation came from an external source. The weather forecasting cell at AFTAC could use these indications to project a target air mass for the 55th to investigate, as well as start projecting back in time to help other national assets find the source of the radiation. I asked DOR if this looked like a big deal, and the reply was something like, “HELL YES!” I asked about getting formal tasking for the additional aircraft. DOR said that the internal debate at the Pentagon insisted on one aircraft only until we knew for sure that there was a problem. This reply set off alarm bells in my head. This wasn’t the first time that we knew additional support was needed but not authorized until it was too late. Bypassing HQ MAC, I called the Air Staff and JCS reconnaissance folks and was told that until that first aircraft could confirm what we were dealing with, JCS would not authorize additional aircraft. Having been recently burned, I stubbornly decided to push the matter. I called the 23rd AF/DO and went to brief him. He also remembered the previous history and called up to our command section. The DO and I briefed M/G Patterson, our commander. He agreed that the smart thing to do was move the follow-on assets ASAP. He wrote a tasking order for a no-notice mobility exercise, tasking two WC-135 to deploy from KMCC (McClellan AFB) to the UK immediately. One hornets’ nest stirred and it was my fault.

General Patterson got on the phone to the 41st RWRW commander to confirm the tasking and find out how soon they could respond. By the time I returned to my cubby hole, the phones, both secure and non secure, were blasting away. “YOU CAN’T DO THIS!” was the basic message. I was happy to tell one and all that they were correct, I couldn’t do this, but that the NAF (Numbered AF, i.e. 23AF) Commander, who has OPCON, could. I confirmed that the 55th knew that they were not to use the JCS funding code for the deploying crew and could not use JCS priority to get SAC tankers. I called my counterpart at SAC/DO8 to explain that we would be requesting CONUS tankers to help move the WC-135, but that it was not part of the other JCS tasking. I think that my two-star called their two-star and they found a way to justify supporting our mobility exercise. The loudest “YOU CAN’T DO THIS!” complaints came from my former friends at AFTAC/DOR. They were locked into waiting for JCS to wake up and not make waves. We went back and forth for hours with them telling me why it couldn’t be done. The final argument was that they had no one crew rested at McClellan. After confirming that we all agreed that there was no operational mission tasking involved, that meant that we did not need to sample enroute. Ergo the SEO (Special Equipment Operators, folf operating the sampling equipment) could fly as passengers and not need crew rest. I finally pointed out that the latest MOA between MAC and AFTAC said that we would tell AFTAC when a WC-135 was deploying so that SEOs could accompany it. I don’t know to this day if the SEOs flew as PAX or not.

Back to the one mission that was tasked. The aircraft departed McClellan and flew to Alaska, meeting a 6th SW alert tanker on AR 506N and taking on 70,000 lbs of JP4. They then flew over the pole and headed south down the 0 degree meridian toward Europe. They headed toward the area of interest plotted by the AFTAC forecast cell. Approaching the coordinates, the crew encountered a visible dark cloud approximately 7 NM across and 1500 feet thick. Penetrating the cloud, the SEOs immediately had positive indications of radiation, which normally only happened when sampling a cloud from a recent atmospheric nuclear test. I think that an “inflight positive” HF call was made. After orbiting until the mission SEOs said it was time to leave, the aircraft headed to RAF Mildenhall. Landing, their exposed papers and spheres were transported to a waiting C-141 heading stateside. I seem to remember that MAC had a C-21 waiting to fly the escort and samples on to the Central Lab at KMCC.

Not to gloat or say, “I told you so!” I got a call from my counterpart at HQ MAC soon after the inflight positive call. “How soon could we have two additional aircraft in Europe?” was the question. Biting my tongue, I explained that the first of our mobility exercise aircraft landed just before the mission bird, and were already in crew rest. They would be available for tasking about 11 hours later. The second mobility bird was approaching Mildenhall as we spoke. It was while talking to MAC that I realized that I had pretty much bypassed them the previous day and talked directly to the Pentagon. Bad, Bad. AFTAC/DOR was apparently not too mad at me anymore. They were the ones who told me that about the same time that the mission aircraft hit the cloud, the satellite folks working off the forecast cell’s backtrack had found a huge IR signature in Northern Ukraine at the Chernobyl Nuclear Plant. The three WC-135 spent the next 5-10 days tracking the cloud at various flight levels across Europe. The mid level debris tracked down the boot of Italy and across the Med, heading to our friends in Libya. The only issues encountered were over flight sensitivities. I think both France and Switzerland denied some of our over flight requests.

I was a crewmember on the 3rd WC-130E to leave Guam. Flew tracks all over the WPAC, up to the Kamchatka (sp?) peninsula. More then one positive hit while we flew. Normally getting 10 radioactive hits would result in an Air Medal or Individual Award, but the classified nature meant no individual awards, so AFTAC and the crews received the AF Organizational Excellence Award.
I need to find my photos, and add them.

I'll treat this like a case study and add more later, never finishing. ;-)