Nuclear Friday: Get Your Whites their Whitest

When most people think of nuclear testing they probably think of the very first nuclear test, Trinity at Alamogordo, New Mexico. Scientists make a bomb, and then see if it works. New designs require new tests to see whether and how well they work. While design analysis has been an important part of weapons testing, there would not have been nearly so many detonations as there were as there haven’t been so many different types of nuclear weapons that there would need to be over 2000 tests worldwide.

A good many detonations were weapon effects tests. It’s important to know what your bombs will do to the enemy, and what the enemy’s bombs will do to you. In fact, the very first nuclear test program after Trinity, Operation Crossroads in 1946, was a weapons effects test. The two weapons used were slightly refined versions of the Fat Man device dropped on Nagasaki with plutonium cores manufactured  before the Japanese surrender. The test targets were ships and goats. Yes, goats. And inadvertently, humans too.

After the Soviet Union tested their first bomb, weapon effects testing became a priority in the United States. Many tests in the Upshot-Knothole series and subsequent Operation Teapot series were focused on increasing the survivability of military equipment in a nuclear environment. The Soviets conduced similar, though less extensive, tests during their Totskoye exercise. The UK also performed similar tests, though not very many as they were privy to the results of the Teapot tests and participated in hardening US bases in Britain.

One of the major questions investigated in all these tests was how to keep a bomber from blowing itself up when it drops its weapon? This problem was solved in WWII by having the B-29s over Hiroshima and Nagasaki fly slowly at high altitude and dropping parachute retarded bombs. This method of attack was possible because at that time Japan had no effective high altitude air defense. By the early 1950s it was known from experience in Korea that the Mig-15 was an effective high altitude interceptor. Bombers would have to approach from a variety of altitudes, and might not always be able to rely on delay parachutes to allow time to escape. So what was the answer to this problem?

Paint. The whitest, brightest pigments that could be practically applied to an aircraft. These types of paint had many formulations, including some toxic organic compounds bonded to lead, zinc, and titanium, but a major component usually was titanium dioxide, a non-toxic compound used today in cosmetics as a brightener and sunscreen. These paints became known as “Anti-Flash White”, which I think is an RAF term, though it became widely used in the USAF.

In the 50s and 60s, nuclear armed powers got their whites their whitest. It was a matter of survival as stress to an aircraft caused by the thermal flash of a nuclear weapon would make the blast wave that followed several seconds later much more lethal than it might be.

Here’s a gallery of aircraft with anti-flash paint. WordPress wants me to make galleries now instead of inserting pictures. I hope this works and you can cycle through these and read the captions:

Page preview tells me this has worked. If you can’t see the larger pictures with their captions in your browser or on your device, please comment and I will try to do better in future posts.

Now you may be wondering whether something as simple as bright white paint could do so much. The answer is, yes. The pilots in the Soviet Sloika and RDS-37 tests would not have survived without anti-flash. These bombs were dropped at risky altitudes to avoid harm to the already stressed populations on the Kazakh-Siberian border. Even the Tsar Bomba plane managed to crash land safely, though it was blown up with demolition charges before US spy planes were able to take pictures of it.

But if you won’t believe the Soviets, here’s some video footage from the Teapot MEC shot in 1955:

These drone craft with their anti-flash undersides were flown as close as they dared above a 22 kiloton tower shot. This video was made by Lookout Mountain studios, a special team recruited from Hollywood to document nuclear testing. I think the jet noise at the beginning is dubbed in. What I really want to know is that the metal stress noise is real. We see the flash, and then hear the sound later as we see the effects of the shock wave. Is this a dubbed sound effect? Since this is a secret military film declassified only in the late 1990s I think it was not a dubbed effect. I think they were able to record stress effects on the airframe without recording the boom of the shock wave by contacting Les Paul or Leo Fender to get some Gibson or P-bass passive magnetic pickups.

In any case, getting whites their whitest seems to have been a well founded idea,  and there are still a few anti-flash planes flying today. The Board may post about them on a later Nuclear Friday.


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