Using dynamite and TNT to enhance nuclear mission

  • Published
  • By Susan A. Romano
  • AFTAC Public Affairs

Ten sticks of medium-grade dynamite, 60 pounds of C4 plastic explosive, two-and-a-half pounds of Semtex and six canisters of TNT made for an explosive day for members of the Air Force Technical Applications Center.

With the assistance and expertise of explosive ordnance disposal Airmen from the 45th Civil Engineer Squadron, AFTAC’s Systems Development Directorate personnel tested a new system to determine if their creative ingenuity could be operationally deployed in the field.

AFTAC, the Department of Defense’s sole nuclear treaty monitoring center, is responsible for operating and maintaining a global network of sensors to detect nuclear explosions around the world. One of the ways it executes that mission is through the use of infrasound equipment.

Staff Sgt. Derrick C. Johnson, a field test technician, wanted to simplify the way AFTAC collects infrasound data, so he set out to field test a concept he drafted based on his knowledge in the field.

“After attending an infrasound course at ENSCO, I learned about the dome idea from the course instructor, Dr. Roger Waxler,” said Johnson. “He mentioned during the course that the company used Papasan chairs covered in a patented material called Sunbrella. It’s a high-performance fabric that’s commonly used in outdoor furniture, awnings and marine upholstery.”

Johnson built a small geodesic dome using a 3D printer with the help of Staff Sgt. Josh Van Horne, an AFTAC Innovations Systems technician. The duo printed hexagons and pentagons and using wood dowels, they glued all the pieces together.

“The fabric cover was made up of six equal sized panels, but I had to come up with a way to mesh them all together,” Johnson continued. “My mom has sewn things together for as long as I can remember, so asked her if I could borrow her sewing machine. Stunned and amused all at once, she brought her machine to my house and sewed the first dome cover together to show me how it’s done. When it was my turn, I managed to break about five needles, but I got that second one put together!”

Once the covers were completed, Johnson was ready to test his invention. But in order to do so, he needed a way to measure sound waves that would register on the equipment. That’s when happenstance entered into play.

“I was attending Airman Leadership School here at Patrick Air Force Base, and Staff Sgt. Evan Weier was one of my classmates,” Johnson said. “Through our conversations, I learned he was an EOD technician, so I told him about the project I was working on, and how we had been using recent rocket launches to test the equipment. Then we came up with the idea of using explosives at the EOD range at the Cape to measure the sound waves emanating from the detonations.”

Weier thought it would be a great win-win situation for both organizations.

“We are required to stay proficient and train around explosives to remain current in our career fields,” Weier said. “One of the ways we do that is through monthly live detonations at our range. So, when Derrick told me about his project, I figured we could kill two birds with one stone, so to speak, and help each other out with our respective missions.”

The team from AFTAC and the team from EOD met at the Cape on a brilliant, cloudless day for a series of detonations using different weights of explosives in order for the infrasound equipment to capture varying degrees of sound waves given off by the blasts.

“From a data analysis perspective, the test was valuable as it provided information that will be beneficial to AFTAC mission planning,” said Maj. Jason Heller, special projects division chief. “We have already discussed some of the implications from the test, and we’re planning a follow-on test to corroborate the data.”

AFTAC has consistently been on the cutting edge of innovation and non-traditional problem solving, and leadership within the center encourages the workforce to think out of the proverbial box.

“This is a textbook example of innovation at its finest,” said Col. Richard Mendez, deputy director of the Systems Development Directorate at the treaty monitoring center. “Sergeant Johnson and his crew created a rapid prototype for $500, which reduces the current kit size by 80 percent and mimics the performance of the current system that traditionally costs upwards of $5,000. I’d say that’s a win for the Air Force.”