Nuclear test veteran who flew through a mushroom cloud

Canberra B6 flying past the mushroom cloud of a Grapple nuclear test

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As soon as the doors on RAF flight navigator Joe Pasquini's plane opened on 28 April 1958 he got out and ran away from the aircraft as quickly as he could.

It was the first time he had ever had to do so. But then, it hadn't exactly been a typical flight.

That morning he and his crew had watched Britain's biggest nuclear bomb explosion. They had then deliberately flown their plane through the radioactive mushroom cloud it created.

Their job was to measure how successful the explosion had been.

When they got back, they were taken to a decontamination area, where they stripped off, handed in their radioactivity recording equipment and scrubbed themselves in the shower for half an hour.

"After that we all felt like a few beers, and that's exactly what we did," Pasquini says.

It was during the time of the Cold War, and although Britain's status as a world power was starting to fade, in 1947 it took the the decision to join the US and Russia as the third country capable of producing nuclear weapons.

Flight Lieutenant Joseph Pasquini aboard HMNZS Pukaki In total, Pasquini flew through two mushroom clouds and saw three other nuclear tests from the ground

Then 60 years ago, in October 1952, Britain conducted its first nuclear weapons test, exploding a bomb inside the frigate, HMS Plym.

Others followed, but it was the nine tests - codenamed Grapple X, Y and Z - over the Pacific Ocean between May 1957 and September 1958 that confirmed Britain as a state with a nuclear weapon capable of obliterating entire cities.

The hydrogen bomb that Pasquini and his crew saw that day was Grapple Y which - at three megatons - is still the most powerful nuclear bomb ever tested by the British.

He had no idea what he would be taking part in when he was sitting in a crew room back in England and he got the call to go to Australia to be a part of the 76 Squadron.

"I kicked it around for a few hours and thought, sure, Australia sounds interesting. I gave the guy a call again and said 'what are they doing?' and he said there's a Canberra squadron there and I said 'what do they do?' and he said, 'they do various things - they will tell you what they do when you get there."

Radioactive particles

Start Quote

I think I saw the face of God for the first time - it was just incredible, it blew our minds”

End Quote Joseph Pasquini Former RAF navigator

And so it wasn't until he reached Adelaide that Pasquini was briefed about the nuclear bomb tests.

"I didn't like it, but it was too late at that particular time," he says. "This was a kind of experimental situation and basically everyone that was involved in the tests was a guinea pig."

The military personnel involved in the tests were based on Christmas Island, which is a small dot on the map in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.

On the day of the test, Pasquini remembers being woken at about 02:00 in the morning, having breakfast and going to a briefing. He and the rest of his crew were in their aircraft by dawn. The weather was perfect, with only a few puffs of clouds in the sky.

The outside of the aircraft, he says, had been coated in a white wax that was supposed to capture any radioactive particles that could be washed off later.

'Bomb falling'

Nuclear weapons

Devastation in Hiroshima after the atom bomb had been dropped on it in August 1945
  • Nuclear bombs have only been used twice in history, both by the US on Japan
  • The first, on 6 August 1945, killed more than 100,000 people in the city of Hiroshima
  • Three days later, the second killed at least 40,000 people in Nagasaki

His crew was one of five ordered to take samples of the bomb after it had exploded.

Flying at 46,000 feet, he says they were excited about what they were about to see.

"We were listening to the bomb aircraft counting down to drop time. As soon as they said 'bomb gone', 'bomb falling', we had to fly away."

They were about 35 miles away from where the bomb was dropped.

"It detonated at 8,000 feet. We had our eyes closed, but even with our eyes closed we could see the light through our eye lids. It took 49 seconds for the light to stop.

"As soon as that happened, we immediately turned back. Fortunately being in the navigating position, I had a little window and I watched the whole thing develop and spread and then start climbing.

"I think I saw the face of God for the first time. It was just incredible, it blew our minds away. These were things that had never been seen before, certainly not by English people."

When the mushroom cloud had passed over them, Pasquini looked up at the window above him and had another surprise - radioactive rain.

"It's the only time I've experienced rain at 46,000 feet," he says.

It was then that the plane's internal measuring equipment maxed out, Pasquini says, exposing them all to high dosages of radioactivity.

He went on to fly through another mushroom cloud during the Grapple Z tests, and saw three other nuclear bomb tests from the ground, having been stopped from flying after receiving more than the recommended dose of radiation.

Feeling of betrayal

Now 79 years old and living in the US, Pasquini has battled cancer seven times.

The Londoner attributes his own illnesses and those of his children to the effects of the radiation exposure, as well as the cancers and illnesses of other nuclear veterans and their children.

The Ministry of Defence says that the cancer rates in the veterans of the nuclear tests are no worse than in normal members of the population, and a group of veterans recently lost claims for compensation at the Supreme Court because their case had been brought to court too late.

About 750 of the veterans and their relatives so far have decided to take their case to the European Court of Human Rights.

Pasquini isn't one of them. The Official Secrets Act had meant that he wasn't able to speak about his experiences to anyone.

But after hearing about the cause of his fellow veterans and their families three years ago, he made contact and gave evidence to help them with their case.

Unlike the British government, the US authorities have paid compensation to their veterans of nuclear testing.

Pasquini feels betrayed that the British government hasn't recognised their sacrifice in the same way.

"We were doing it and we were all ready to die," he says.

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