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Constant Phoenix crew returns from Pacific

EIELSON AIR FORCE BASE, Alaska -- A WC-135 Constant Phoenix from the 45th Reconnaissance Squadron prepares to land after flying a mission supporting Operation Tomodachi. The WC-135 is an atmospheric collection aircraft that was tasked with collecting air samples in international airspace over the Pacific as part of the Defense Department?s disaster relief effort in response to Japan?s March 11 earthquake and tsunami. The Constant Phoenix team was in Alaska for nearly six weeks. (Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Christopher Boitz)

EIELSON AIR FORCE BASE, Alaska -- A WC-135 Constant Phoenix from the 45th Reconnaissance Squadron prepares to land after flying a mission supporting Operation Tomodachi. The WC-135 is an atmospheric collection aircraft that was tasked with collecting air samples in international airspace over the Pacific as part of the disaster relief effort in response to Japan's March 11 earthquake and tsunami. The Constant Phoenix team was in Alaska for nearly six weeks. (Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Christopher Boitz)

EIELSON AIR FORCE BASE, Alaska -- A WC-135 Constant Phoenix from the 45th Reconnaissance Squadron taxis in on the flightline here after a mission supporting Operation Tomodachi. The WC-135 is an atmospheric collection aircraft that was tasked with collecting air samples in international airspace over the Pacific as part of the disaster relief effort in response to Japan?s March 11 earthquake and tsunami. The Constant Phoenix team was in Alaska for nearly six weeks. (Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Christopher Boitz)

EIELSON AIR FORCE BASE, Alaska -- A WC-135 Constant Phoenix from the 45th Reconnaissance Squadron taxis in on the flightline here after a mission supporting Operation Tomodachi. The WC-135 is an atmospheric collection aircraft that was tasked with collecting air samples in international airspace over the Pacific as part of the disaster relief effort in response to Japan's March 11 earthquake and tsunami. The Constant Phoenix team was in Alaska for nearly six weeks. (Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Christopher Boitz)

EIELSON AIR FORCE BASE, Alaska -- Personnel from the 55th Aerospace Medicine Squadron and 55th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron report a "thumbs down," which indicates the WC-135 Constant Phoenix aircraft is above acceptable levels of contamination and needs be parked in an isolated location to be decontaminated. This initial radiation survey was done every time the WC-135 landed after collecting air samples in international airspace over the Pacific as part of Operation Tomodachi. (Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Christopher Boitz)

EIELSON AIR FORCE BASE, Alaska -- Personnel from the 55th Aerospace Medicine Squadron and 55th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron report a "thumbs down," which indicates the WC-135 Constant Phoenix aircraft is above acceptable levels of contamination and needs be parked in an isolated location to be decontaminated. This initial radiation survey was done every time the WC-135 landed after collecting air samples in international airspace over the Pacific as part of Operation Tomodachi. (Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Christopher Boitz)

OFFUTT AIR FORCE BASE, Neb. -- With their heads held high and hearts filled with pride, the WC-135 Constant Phoenix crew returned home here April 23 after successfully supporting Operation Tomodachi.

The WC-135 is an atmospheric collection aircraft that was tasked with collecting air samples in international airspace over the Pacific as part of the Defense Department's disaster relief effort in response to Japan's March 11 earthquake and tsunami.

"This was a great opportunity to serve our country and protect our allies at the same time," said Capt. Mark Cramer, an instructor navigator with the 45th Reconnaissance Squadron and deployed director of operations for this mission. "We are very proud to have provided unique data that had a far-reaching impact to the protection of millions of people in an extraordinary situation."

A total of 40 Airmen from across Team Offutt were part of the more than 20,000 personnel, approximately 140 aircraft and more than 20 ships from the U.S. military that have supported this operation so far.

"This event posed many unique challenges and hurdles," said Lt. Col. Jason Riera, Air Force Technical Applications Center Detachment 1 commander, who was the overall commander on this mission. "With flexibility being the key to airpower, we were able to overcome and ... through long hours and hard work, we were able to successfully accomplish our mission as charged."

The flexibility of the WC-135 allowed the crew to cover a broad geographical area in a relatively short time frame. During this six-week deployment the aircraft flew more than 51,000 nautical miles.

"The aircraft itself is great to fly and could not have been designed better to meet our tasking," Captain Cramer said. "It has recently been modified to the most advanced avionics at Offutt and earned its pay ten-fold on the recent operation."

To collect air samples, the WC-135 uses a combination of equipment. This includes an external flow-through device to collect particulates on filter paper and a compressor system for whole air samples collected in on-board holding spheres.

"With being involved in a mission that predates the Air Force and has a rich history of nuclear treaty monitoring, it was a unique opportunity to utilize what we have been trained for," said Tech. Sgt. Michael Holland, AFTAC Det. 1, who was a special equipment operator on this mission. "Thankfully, events of this magnitude only come along once in a generation, and we were up to the challenge."

With this unique skill set, it didn't come as a surprise to these Airmen that within a few short days following the massive 9.0-magnitude earthquake and tsunami, the Constant Phoenix team received its orders to deploy. In a matter of hours, the WC-135 was wheels up and enroute to its destination.

"With all of the 45th diverse mission sets having deployed in support of emergent taskings in the last year, we are well practiced at this type of response," said Lt. Col. Brian Humphrey, 45th RS commander. "This ability to rapidly respond is part of what makes the character of the 45th so special."

As people around the world watched the news unfold on the incredible amount of damage being assessed and could only wish they could help, the members of Team Offutt had the unique opportunity to do just that.

"What we often do carries significant elements of risk," Colonel Humphrey said. "Most of the time, this is to help prepare our fellow Airmen defeat our potential adversaries. This time, it's been really gratifying to be part of a mission that seeks to help those in need."

And while supporting Operation Tomodachi was the crew's main mission, they were also able to provide integral aircraft decontamination data to key decision makers throughout the DOD and Federal Aviation Administration.

"It is great to be in the inner circle creating a process, validating the process and executing it real world," said Maj. Chris Kurinec, the installation radiation safety officer with the 55th Aerospace Medicine Squadron, who was the radiation safety officer on the mission. "It feels good to go from being a heretic with non-standard aircraft parking to proving that concept was the right answer for the safety of our aircrew."

But at the end of the day, being able to assist an ally in need was undoubtedly the most gratifying part of the mission to the Constant Phoenix team.

"We felt proud and honored to be conducting a mission to support the international relief effort and providing a measure of safety in the region," Colonel Riera said.