32 Times America Almost Nuked Itself
Nuclear disaster is one of the most serious threats that faces the human race. Although our current climate is not marked by nearly the level of mortal fear that was in the air during the Cold War, the nuclear threat is as serious as ever. Maybe even more serious, as nuclear weapons continue to proliferate across the world. Among the many dangers involved in nuclear weapons is the possibility of human error resulting in catastrophic consequences. In this article, we will look at thirty-two times American nukes came close to accidental detonation, or actually were detonated, due to negligence, accidents and bad luck. These accidents are called “Broken Arrows” by the government, and they are terrifying.
The first Broken Arrow occurred on February 13, 1950. A Convair B-36 flying over British Columbia jettisoned a Mark 4 nuclear weapon before crashing. It was the first documented loss of a nuclear weapon since their invention. It was on a planned 24-hour simulated bombing run across the west coast, carrying Mark 4 bomb and five thousand pounds of conventional explosives. The USAF claims that the nuke was missing the plutonium core that would have been necessary for a full nuclear detonation.
After seven hours, three of the B-36’s six engines caught fire. The remaining three operational engines could not create enough thrust to keep the plane airborne. The crew of seventeen decided to load the fake practice core into the nuke, drop it, and detonate it in mid-air. After the huge (conventional) explosion, the aircraft commander had the plane flown over Princess Royal Island and the crew parachuted to safety. The plane crashed into the ocean. Twelve of the seventeen crew survived. The Canadian government was not told that the incident involved a nuclear bomb.
A B-29 Crashes Into A Mountain
It was only two months before America suffered its second Broken Arrow accident. On April 11, 1950, a B-29 departed from Kirtland Air Force Base, New Mexico and crashed into a mountain three minutes after takeoff. All of the crew onboard were killed in the crash.
The B-29 was carrying a nuke that thankfully did not detonate on impact. A gasoline fire that broke out after the crash did detonate some high explosive material onboard, and the case in which the nuke was being stored was destroyed. The bomb’s capsule had not been inserted into the bomb, due to (very reasonable) safety considerations. Thanks to this precaution, the nuke remained intact, to be delivered back to the Atomic Energy Commission. In another stroke of luck, the bomb was not damaged, causing no radioactive contamination problems.
Although it would not have been possible for the bomb to go off without its capsule inserted, it was still a terrifying incident. You may chalk these early accidents up to a learning curve with nuclear devices, which were still relatively new, but incidents like this continued to occur. This accident pales in comparison to some of the true disasters that are recounted later in this article.
Another Plane Crashes
Yet another incident occurred that year. On July 13, 1950, a USAF B-50 Superfortress was flying a training mission from Biggs Air Force Base, Texas when it crashed in Ohio. It was carrying a nuclear bomb.
Despite clear skies, the plane nosed down and plummeted directly into the ground from seven thousand feet. All sixteen crew members aboard the B-50 bomber were killed in the crash. Thankfully, the nuclear bomb did not have a nuclear capsule, making a nuclear detonation impossible. The high explosive part of the bomb did explode, however, creating a massive plume of fire. Even without their full nuclear capability, these nuclear weapons contained very high amounts of explosive material that made them extremely powerful, even without their plutonium pits.
Incidents like this are one of the most compelling cases for nuclear disarmament. An accident involving a nuclear bomb, if it were to actually go off, could easily be misinterpreted as a nuclear first strike and precipitate a catastrophic exchange. A nuclear accident, even if it did not have these ramifications, will inevitably have others. A nuclear accident in a populated area could cause massive casualties, and every nuclear explosion causes radiation that can linger for decades.
An Emergency Landing Gone Wrong
1950 was to see two more accidents involving an American nuclear bomb. On August 5, a Boeing B-29 Superfortress took off from Fairfield-Suisun Air Force Base with twenty crew onboard. It crashed shortly thereafter, northeast of San Francisco, killing twelve of the crew. Seven more people were killed on the ground in a resultant explosion. It was a terrible tragedy, that could have been much worse had the nuke gone off.
The aircraft was on its way to Guam, where it was to be staged, along with nine other “Silverplate,” nor nuclear-equipped, B-29’s as deterrence against a potential Chinese attack on Taiwan. Each of the ten was armed with a Mark 4 nuclear bomb, though their fissile pits were transported separately. Among the dead was Brigadier General Robert F. Travis, for whom the Fairfield-Suisun Air Force Base was later renamed.
After taking off, the plane could not achieve enough altitude to clear the landscape in front of it. The pilot, Captain Eugene Q. Steffes, attempted to turn the plane around for an emergency landing back on the runway, but ended up clipping one of the wings on the ground. The airplane crashed, claiming its victims. Thankfully, a nuclear explosion was averted.
The Riviere-du-Loup Nuclear Weapon Loss Incident
On November 10, 1950, a B-50 bomber released a nuclear bomb near Riviere-du-Loup, Quebec as a result of engine troubles.
Thankfully, the bomb was destroyed in a conventional explosion before it hit the ground. The B-50 was on its way back from Canada, carrying a Mark 4 nuclear bomb that the United States had secretly deployed there. It was one of several such bombs that the Canadian government was deliberately kept in the dark about.
When the plane experienced engine issues, the crew decided to jettison the bomb at 10,500 feet. USAF protocol dictated that a plane could not land with a nuclear weapon onboard if it was undergoing such engine problems. The bomb was rigged to self-destruct at 2,500 feet. Although the explosion wasn’t nuclear, it still sprayed about a hundred pounds of radioactive uranium across the ground below. The explosion also terrified the area’s residents.
The United States was quick to sweep the incident under the rug, offering a cover story that a 500-pound practice bomb had been detonated. The Air Force did not confirm that it was, indeed, a nuclear bomb until the eighties. This is another example of the Air Force’s dubious achievement of saving their disasters from going nuclear by transporting their nukes’ plutonium cores separately from the nukes themselves.
A B-47 Disappears
One of the biggest concerns over nuclear weapons today is that a nuclear bomb, or its composite materials, will fall into the hands of a rogue state or terrorist organization. There is historical precedent for these fears. The first known disappearance of American nuclear bomb materials occurred on March 10, 1956.
The B-47 in question took off from the MacDill Air Force Base in Florida. It was headed for Ben Guerir Air Base in Morocco. The B-47, carrying two capsules of nuclear weapons material in carrying cases, was to be refueled twice in mid-flight. The first midair refueling occurred without incident. The B-47 went on its way.
The tanker that was deployed for its second refueling never heard from the aircraft. The tanker hailed them on the radio, but received no response. After several minutes, they issued a missing aircraft alert, precipitating an enormous search effort that would involve the USAF, the Royal Navy and the French and Moroccan militaries. No trace of the aircraft, its crew, or its nuclear cargo was ever discovered.
Newspapers speculated that the plane may have exploded in the air above Morocco, or crashed into the ocean southeast of Algeria. These were just theories. The case is still a complete mystery.
The Lakenheath Incident
A nuclear weapon does not have to be loaded onto an airplane for it to be dangerous. Even sitting in its storage facility, just the potential of its destructive capabilities makes it a wild liability. A story from 1956 illustrates this.
On July 27, an American B-47 was taking off from Lakenheath Royal Air Force Station, about twenty miles from Cambridge, when disaster struck. The plane was involved in “Operation Reflex,” a plan to rotate bombers in and out of bases in the UK and North Africa on ninety-day intervals. During this routine flight, the B-47 skidded off the runway during takeoff and crashed directly into a storage “igloo” that contained three Mark 6 nuclear bombs.
The Mark 6 was twelve feet long, with a six foot diameter, and contained roughly eight thousand pounds of high explosives. Somehow, the crash and resulting jet fuel fire did not ignite the bombs.
A retired Air Force general who was stationed in England at the time of the disaster said that “It is possible that a part of Eastern England would have become a desert.” Although the nukes were stored without their capsules, the conventional explosions would have rained radioactive material across a huge swath of the country.
This Bomb Actually Did Hit
It is truly incredible just how many nuclear weapons had been actually dropped from aircraft in the years following World War II. On May 27, 1957, a routine safety procedure aboard a B-36 resulted in a nuclear bomb falling all the way to the ground and exploding.
The nuclear weapon was being transported between Biggs Air Force Base in Texas to Kirtland Air Force Base in New Mexico. On the plane’s descent into Kirtland, at an altitude around 1,700, a crewman removed the bomb’s release mechanism locking pin – standard protocol during takeoff and landing that would allow the bomb to be jettisoned in an emergency.
The bomb jettisoned itself. It fell out of the bomb bay, broke through the bomb doors and fell the full distance to the ground. Emergency parachutes attached to the bomb weren’t able to adequately slow its descent due to the low altitude. Thankfully, the nuke’s plutonium core was not installed. The bomb did, however, create a crater 12 feet deep and 25 feet in diameter. The military conducted a radiological survey of the surrounding area and claimed that there was no radioactivity extending beyond the crater’s lip. The bomb fell .3 miles from Sandia Base, a secret nuke testing base, and 4.5 miles from Kirtland, which was home to a huge stockpile of nukes.
A C-124 Drops Two Nuclear Bombs
1957 was a banner year for nuclear accidents. On July 28, a C-124 was carrying three nukes over the Atlantic Ocean when two of its engines lost power.
When the engines cut out, the crew decided to jettison one of the nuclear bombs at 4,500 feet. The plane was carrying three bombs and one nuclear capsule. The capsule was not installed in any of the bombs. After the first was dumped, a second bomb was dropped at 2,500 feet. Both plunged into the ocean and no explosion was observed.
The C-124 landed at an airfield near Atlantic City, New Jersey with the third nuclear bomb and the nuclear capsule still onboard. Thanks to their reduced weight, nobody was hurt. Despite search efforts in the area where the bombs were dropped, they were never found. Which means somewhere about a hundred miles off the coast of New Jersey, two enormous nuclear bombs, likely damaged from their fall, are still sitting on the ocean floor. Hopefully not hemorrhaging radioactive material into the water.
The C-124 was, at the time, the world’s largest military transport aircraft. The people who worked on them liked to call it “Old Shaky.”
A Crash At Homestead AFB
Yet another Broken Arrow for 1957. This one occurred shortly after a B-47 carrying a nuclear bomb and a nuclear capsule took off from Homestead Air Force Base in Florida on October 11.
After lifting off, one of the B-47’s outrigger tires exploded, causing the plane to crash about four thousand feet from the runway. The plane was engulfed in flame. It took four hours to put the fire out, during which time two explosions occurred. Luckily, about half of the bomb itself was still intact when retrieved from the wreckage, and the nuclear capsule and its carrying case only showed minor heat damage.
Homestead was the site of another disaster in 1992, though this time it was a natural disaster. Hurricane Andrew, a category 5, swept over the base and laid it to total ruin. The aircraft at the base were evacuated and only a small contingent of people remained to watch the storm. The destruction was rampant. A huge salvage operation was launched. It was the biggest peacetime clean-up effort in the military’s peacetime history. The base re-opened on August 28 of 1992, though only for official business. The Homestead Air Reserve Base is still open today.
A B-47 Catches Fire
Five nuclear accidents occurred in 1958. The first happened on January 31, in French Morocco. A B-47, loaded with one nuclear bomb, was going through a simulated takeoff when its left rear wheel casing failed at a speed of thirty knots. The consequences were not good.
The airplane’s tail hit the runway, a fuel tank broke and the B-47 erupted in flames. The intense fire raged for seven hours. Fire fighters only worked for ten minutes to put the fire out, in adherence to safety protocols for fires involving high explosives. Somehow, the bomb’s explosives did not ignite. The fire did, however, cause radioactive contamination to seep from the wreckage.
The plane’s debris and the asphalt beneath it were removed, and the runway was washed. This was apparently enough to contain the radiation. A fire truck and the clothing of one of the firemen did show radioactive contamination, but it was cleaned by washing. This accident caused exercise alerts to be ceased and aircraft wheels to be checked for flaws.
You would think that seven straight hours of direct exposure to fire would be enough to ignite thousands of pounds of high explosives, but, however it was possible, that never occurred.
The Tybee Island Mid-Air Collision
On February 5, 1958, an F-86 fighter plane collided with a B-47 carrying a nuclear bomb during a training exercise off of Tybee Island, off the coast of Georgia.
The B-47 was flying a simulated mission from Homestead Air Force Base, carrying a 7,600-pound Mark 15 nuclear weapon. At two in the morning, it was hit in mid-air by the F-86. The smaller fighter plane crashed after the pilot ejected, and the B-47 stayed in the air, though it suffered a rapid descent. The B-47 plummeted from 38,000 feet to 18,000 feet before it evened out.
The crew requested authorization to drop the bomb to lighten the plane, and permission was granted. The bomb hit the ocean’s surface and disappeared without an explosion. The B-47 landed safely at Hunter Air Force Base with no casualties. Colonel Howard Richardson, the pilot, won the Distinguished Flying Cross for his performance during the crisis.
There are conflicting stories as to whether or not the bomb had its capsule installed at the time it was dropped. The military says no, but Assistant Secretary of Defense W.J. Howard said during a 1966 Congressional hearing that it was a “complete weapon, a bomb with a nuclear capsule.”
Another Bomb Accidentally Dropped
On March 11, 1958, a B-47E took off from Hunter Air Force Base in Georgia. It was the third of four aircraft flying to a base overseas. The plane hit a cruising altitude of 15,000 feet and then somehow, accidentally, released an unarmed nuclear bomb.
The bomb hit ground in an area that thankfully didn’t have many residents, about six and a half miles east of Florence, South Carolina. The bomb did not produce a nuclear explosion, but its conventional payload did ignite. It caused multiple injuries and some property damage, but was not as bad of a disaster as it could have been.
The B-47E flew back to Hunter Air Force Base and landed without any further trouble. The bomb was not armed with a nuclear capsule, and no nuclear capsule was carried along with the bomb on the aircraft. It bears repeating just how insane it is that this one safety precaution staved off so many virtually guaranteed nuclear detonations throughout our history. It is also remarkable that something as deadly as a nuclear weapon was so apparently difficult to keep inside of the planes that carried them. The detonation site is now marked with signs and plaques describing the accident.
Bombing A Wheat Field
On November 4, 1958, a B-47 (always a B-47, apparently), caught on fire during takeoff from Dyess Air Force Base in Texas. It resulted in an explosion that was non-nuclear, but had potentially long-lasting effects.
The plane had reached an altitude of 1,500 feet, before the fire brought it crashing back to earth. One of the four crew members was killed in the crash. The three others were able to escape the aircraft by ejecting before it hit ground.
The unarmed nuke exploded on impact, leaving a crater that was six feet deep and thirty five feet in diameter. The bomb also deposited nuclear material around the crash site. It wasn’t until 2011 that the US Air Force actually mounted a full-scale cleanup effort to remove all of the waste deposited in the explosion.
A military report says that the explosion deposited lead, depleted uranium and highly-enriched uranium on the ground near the crash site, in quantities that are “classified.” The bomb fell on what was previously a wheat field, which was later converted into grazing land for cattle. A survey showed that the ground was indeed radioactive around the crater. They estimated that ground contamination was “low.”
The Chennault AFB Accident
On November 26, 1958, a B-47 that was sitting at Chennault Air Force Base in Louisiana caught fire.
It was carrying a nuclear bomb on board, that was totally destroyed by the fire. Clearly, it was unarmed, as it did not produce a mushroom cloud. It did, however, produce radioactive contamination. Thankfully, that contamination was limited to the area immediately around the aircraft’s wreckage.
This was the eighth nuclear accident involving a B-47. It was also the last. Of all the aircraft that have been tasked with transporting nuclear weapons, the B-47 takes the award for being the most accident prone. By no means did the phasing out of the B-47 as a nuclear delivery system inoculate the United States against further Broken Arrow incidents. There would be many, many more to come.
The B-47 remained in active service as a bomber until 1965, at which time it was left behind for newer, better aircraft. During its years of service, starting in 1951, it never actually saw active combat as a bomber. It did, however, manage to deposit nuclear weapons in many places where they didn’t belong. It is probably for the best that the Air Force moved on to newer models.
A Broken Arrow In Japan
On January 18, 1959, a F-100 jet that was armed with a nuclear weapon had a very serious incident.
The jet was parked at an American Air Force base in Osan, Japan. The F-100’s pilot, while sitting in the cockpit, pushed the ignition button, presumably by accident. The resulting engine blast ruptured a 200-gallon fuel tank on its left wing. It caught fire.
The nuke loaded onto the jet was partially melted. Its detonator was also damaged by the fire. Thankfully, the bomb did not explode. Miraculously, there was no radioactive contamination from the melted bomb, either. The bomb’s capsule was not in the bomb. It was being stored a safe distance away. The fire was put out after about seven minutes.
At that time, about ten American planes armed with nuclear bombs were stationed at Osan. They were there to conduct training exercises for a possible nuclear strike on Vladivostok.
The Cold War years were marked with a public fear of nuclear warfare that bordered on, and sometimes passed over into, hysteria. It may have been more reasonable to fear the consequences of our own mismanagement of our nuclear arsenal than a war with the USSR.
The Barksdale Air Force Base Incident
On July 6, 1959, a C-124 taking off from Barksdale Air Force Base, Louisiana crashed after takeoff, with nuclear weapons onboard. What ensued was a terrifying accident and partial cover-up.
The aircraft was on a nuclear logistics movement mission. One of its bombs was destroyed in the crash, but did not produce a nuclear or conventional explosion, thanks to functional safety precautions. The crash did contaminate the area beneath the bomb after it destroyed, but not severely enough to get in the way of rescue and fire fighting efforts. None of the seven crew were killed. Barksdale Air Force Base and the Shady Grove Subdivision were evacuated.
The Air Force later admitted, in the eighties, that not one but three nuclear bombs had been melted in the accident. They also buried the wreckage and the soil that surrounded it, in case of contamination. Thankfully, when it was re-tested more recently, no radioactivity was detected.
Many of the people working at the base at the time were not aware that the accident had involved nuclear weapons. Although the bombs did not have their fissile cores in, three nukes melting into the ground could easily have precipitated a major radioactive contamination crisis. Luckily, that didn’t occur.
A Depth Charge Drops In Puget Sound
On September 25, 1959, a P-5M aircraft was abandoned in Puget Sound, off the coast of Whidbey Island in Washington. It was armed with a nuclear weapon designed to attack submarines.
The ten person crew was rescued without incident. Despite sitting in a raft on the freezing cold Puget Sound for ten hours, none of them lost their lives. The bomb, however, was never recovered. It was a nuclear depth charge that would have had an explosive power between five and ten kilotons. For scale, a single kiloton is equivalent to one thousand tons of TNT. That’s between five and ten thousand tons of TNT, packed into one bomb. For further reference, the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima is estimated to have produced a 13.5 kiloton explosion.
It is unclear why the Martin P5M-2 Marlin was forced to ditch. At the time, it was about a hundred miles west of the border between Washington and Oregon. The Mark 90 depth charge was not, thankfully, fitted with an active warhead. At the time of the accident, the press was not alerted that it had occurred. So, somewhere at the bottom of the Puget Sound, there is a depth charge that could have been capable of creating an explosion almost as strong as Hiroshima.
A Fuel Tanker and a B-52 Collide
One of the worst possible scenarios for a nuclear weapon is that the plane carrying it collide with another plane in midair. This is what happened in 1959.
A B-52 took off from Columbus Air Force Base, Mississippi on October 15, 1959. It was the second of two B-52s that were to be refueled by two KC-135’s. The KC-135’s took off from Columbus Air Force Base about three hours after the B-52’s. They rendezvoused for refueling above Hardinsberg, Kentucky.
When they encountered each other, the night sky was clear and free of turbulence. It was a mystery, then, why one of the refueling tankers collided with one of the B-52s in mid-refuel. The B-52’s pilot and instructor pilot both ejected, as did the radar navigator and electronic warfare officer. The B-52’s co-pilot, instructor navigator, navigator and tail gunner were not able to escape. The KC-135 was crewed by four, all of whom died.
The B-52 was carrying two unarmed nukes. Both were retrieved. One of the bombs had suffered minor damage. Thankfully, their high explosive loads did not combust, and the bombs did not hemorrhage any radioactive material after the crash.
The BOMARC Disaster
At McGuire Air Force Base in New Jersey, there is a plot of land that is fenced off due to radioactive contamination. It was the site of a nuclear accident in 1960.
On June 7, 1960, a nuke-tipped BOMARC missile at the site suffered a helium tank explosion. The explosion caused a fire wasn’t extinguished until about fifteen hours later. Water from the firefighting effort got everywhere, contaminating an area about a hundred feet long. It extended in a strip from under the bomb, where the water flowed.
A nuclear response team from Griffiss Air Force Base did a survey of the area surrounding the accident and found that radioactive material had not been dispersed “outside the facility’s boundaries.” However, about eleven ounces of weapons-grade plutonium was never recovered. The rest of the weapon’s radioactive material was shipped first to Medina Base in San Antonio and then to Amarillo, Texas. In 1987, traces of radioactive material from the bomb was found half a mile from the explosion. In 2007, a fence was erected around the area’s perimeter, and human entry to the 75-acre piece of land was restricted. If you want to visit the site of the BOMARC explosion, you probably can’t.
The Goldsboro B-53 Crash
The Goldsboro B-52 crash transpired near Goldsboro, North Carolina on January 24, 1961. A B-52 carrying two Mark 39 nukes disintegrated in midair, releasing the two bombs in what could have turned into a complete catastrophe.
The plane was rendezvousing with a tanker aircraft for mid-air refueling. During the procedure, the tanker noticed that the B-52 was leaking fuel from its right wing. The tanker backed off, and ground control told the bomber to stay in a holding pattern off the coast until most of its fuel was expended. By the time the plane got to its holding position, though, the leak had grown worse. Thirty seven thousand pounds of fuel was lost in a span of only three minutes. The crew was told to land at Seymour Johnson Air Force Base.
On its descent, the pilots lost control of the aircraft. The crew abandoned the plane at nine thousand feet. Two crew died in the ensuing crash and one died due to a rough landing. As the plane continued to break up, it deployed its two bombs.
Accounts differ as to just how close we came to a nuclear detonation that day. The first bomb descended by parachute, and was found totally intact, standing upright, thanks to its parachute catching a tree branch. According to Lt. Jack Revelle, the bomb had completed its entire arming sequence, save for the last arm/safe switch, which was in “safe.”
The second bomb hit a muddy field at seven hundred miles per hour and was destroyed without exploding. It was partially armed, though an unclosed high-voltage switch had stopped it from completing its arming sequence.
Lt. Revelle said of the accident, “we came damn close.” The bombs, by his estimation, were each about 250 times stronger than the Hiroshima bomb.
A B-52 Runs Out Of Fuel
On March 14, 1961, a B-52 carrying two nuclear bombs took off from Mathew Air Force Base near Sacramento and experienced uncontrolled decompression that forced it to rapidly descend.
As the plane flew at lower altitude, it burned too much fuel to remain airborne for long. The bomber was also not going to be able to make a planned rendezvoused with a refueling tanker. The plane ran out of fuel.
The crew ejected to safety and the unmanned plane crashed into the ground fifteen miles from Yuba City. The nuclear bombs were rent from the plane upon impact. Their safety devices functioned properly and the bombs did not explode. Unfortunately, a fireman was killed and multiple others injured in a road accident en route to the crash site.
In a 2012 book, LTC Earl McGill, a former B-52 pilot, claimed that the crew refused a supplemental inflight refueling and also chose not to land on multiple emergency landing fields. He also says there were four, not two, bombs aboard the aircraft. He places blame for the accident on the crew, and on the use of dexedrine to stay awake during the 24-hour flight that preceded the crash.
The Medina Explosion
On November 13, 1963, nine days before the assassination of JFK, a munitions explosion rocked San Antonio. The explosion, resulting from the high explosive components of multiple nuclear weapons detonating, was strong enough to shatter windows thirty miles away.
Three employees of the Atomic Energy Commission were working in a “storage igloo” at Medina Base when a nuclear bomb in the igloo caught fire and produced a sound like a shotgun blast. The three men sprinted for cover and were lucky not to be killed as 123,000 pounds of high explosives detonated. The explosion shot an enormous plume of debris into the air that witnesses thought was a nuclear mushroom cloud. Alarm spread, and multiple cities prepared for evacuation.
The story occupied the media until the president’s assassination. Now, the event is virtually forgotten. The cause of the fire was never determined. Planes and cars swept the area with radiation sensors, but didn’t find any aberrant readings. The government remained tight-lipped about the incident, fueling speculation that it had indeed been a nuclear blast. Only a large crater remained where the igloo had been.
The purpose of the igloo, one of ninety, was to store dismantled nuclear weapons from the Cold War. The structures were designed to force any accidental explosions from the stored ordinance downwards. It did not, apparently, work.
A Crash In The Mountains
On January 13, 1964, a B-52 took off from Westover Air Force Base in Massachusetts. It was on its way to Turner Air Force Base, Georgia when it crashed about seventeen miles from Cumberland, Maryland. It had two nuclear bombs onboard.
The B-52 hit bad turbulence at 29,500 feet, and radioed for permission to climb to 33,000 feet. They were given clearance. The climb proved fatal. As the aircraft ascended, it was buffeted by even more violent turbulence and experienced severe structural failure. Three of the five crew died. The navigator and the gunner managed to eject before the crash and landed safely on the ground, but were killed by exposure. The radar navigator failed to eject in time, and died when the plane hit the ground in a remote, wooded spot in the mountains.
When the crash was reached, it was buried in fourteen inches of snow. The wreckage was extensive, covering an area of about a hundred square yards. The cleanup effort was a difficult one. High winds and extremely low temperatures made the cleanup crews exceptionally uncomfortable. As did handling the two unexploded nuclear bombs. Their switches were still in the “safe” position when they were recovered.
An ICBM Pops Its Lid
On December 5, 1964, a Minuteman ICBM stored at Ellsworth Air Force Base, South Dakota experienced an extremely frightening malfunction.
The missile, on strategic alert at Launch Facility L-02, was being checked out by two airmen who had been sent to repair the Launch Facility’s inner zone security system. As they were working on the IZ system, a retrorocket below the Reentry Vehicle (the part of an ICBM that carries the warheads) fired. The Reentry Vehicle fell all the way to the silo’s floor, about seventy-five feet down.
The RV’s altitude control subsystem, which contained its batteries, came loose. The RV was totally powered down and was badly damaged in the fall. Thankfully, the RV’s safety devices did not perceive any events that caused them to arm the warhead. There was no explosion, and no radioactive material was hemorrhaged from the missile.
There were eight hundred of this model of Minuteman, the Minuteman I, delivered to the American military. They were eventually phased out in favor of subsequent models of Minuteman. As of 2017, the United States commanded a stockpile of 6,800 nuclear warheads. Any one of which, if it were to accidentally detonate, could result in catastrophic fatalities.
A B-58 Fails To Take Off
On December 8, 1964, a series of mishaps resulted in a B-58 skidding off an icy runway at Bunker Hill Air Force Base in Indiana. Its nuclear payload thankfully did not combust in the midst of the calamity.
The B-58 was taxiing behind another B-58, which applied too much power as it was taxiing. The B-58 behind it, equipped with five nukes, was hit by the jet engine blast. It lost control while turning a corner and started sliding. Its left main landing gear hit a light fixture on the runway and then grazed against the edge of a concrete light base. As the plane continued to skid, its landing gear ran into an electrical manhole box, which sparked a fire that engulfed the B-58.
The plane finally skidded to a halt and its three crew attempted to escape. Two of them, the defensive systems operator and the aircraft commander, suffered minor injuries. The navigator ejected. His escape capsule hit the ground 548 feet from the plane, killing him.
The nuclear bombs were damaged in the fire but did not explode. There was some radioactive contamination surrounding the crash site, but it was apparently cleaned up.
A C-124 Catches Fire
On October 11, 1965, a C-124 stationed at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio caught fire during a routine refueling, before it was to fly a logistics mission. Things went very awry.
The fire broke out in the aft end of the refueling trailer, spreading to the plane and engulfing it. The fuselage was totally destroyed by the flames. It was carrying nuclear weapons components and a dummy training bomb. All of which were also destroyed by the fire.
Thankfully, no casualties resulted from the blaze. There were, however, some minor problems with radioactive contamination. Radioactive material was found on the aircraft wreckage, as well as on its cargo. Radioactive material also got on the clothing of the bomb disposal workers and fire fighters that responded to the emergency. After a clean-up effort, the material was removed.
As dodgy as the B-52 was in terms of carrying nuclear weapons, the C-124 didn’t seem to fare that much better. Maybe loading nukes onto an aircraft that people liked to call “Old Shaky” wasn’t such a great idea. Maybe loading nuclear weapons onto planes isn’t that great of an idea, period. Or submarines. Or trucks. Or intercontinental ballistic missiles.
The Philippine Sea A-4 Crash
This is a unique Broken Arrow incident – a Douglas A-4E Skyhawk equipped with a nuclear weapon fell off the deck of an aircraft carrier. It was a combination of slapstick and deep tragedy.
The Skyhawk was aboard the USS Ticonderoga, which departed from the U.S. Naval Base Subic Bay in the Philippines on December 5, 1965. During a training exercise in which the jet was being transported from its hangar to an elevator, it rolled off the side of the ship. With its pilot inside.
The pilot, Lieutenant Douglas M. Webster, died in the accident. The jet, and the B43 nuclear bomb attached to it, were never found. They presumably sank sixteen thousand feet to the bottom of the ocean, where they must still sit. The site was about sixty-eight miles from Kikai Island, Kagoshima Prefecture, Japan.
The United States kept the incident secret until 1989. The Japanese government, slightly alarmed by the news that there was a one-megaton nuclear bomb sitting off their country’s coast, launched a diplomatic inquiry. Of all the terrifying ways to die, sinking to the bottom of the ocean inside of a nuclear-equipped fighter jet must be up there in terms of nightmare fuel.
The Palomares Incident
The Palomares Incident, or 1966 Palomares B-52 Crash, occurred on January 17, 1966. A B-52G bomber hit a KC-135 tanker off the coast of Spain, over the Mediterranean Sea.
The KC-135’s fuel lit up, exploding the aircraft and killing all four of its crew. The B-52G disintegrated. Three of its seven crew lost their lives. The bomber was carrying four Mark 28 hydrogen bombs. Three of them hit land near a fishing village called Palomares in Spain. Two of them suffered conventional explosions, contaminating a 0.77 square mile area surrounding the impact zone with plutonium. The fourth bomb dropped into the Mediterranean Sea, and was finally found after search crews worked for two and a half months.
The incident was a major embarrassment for the Johnson administration, and cause for widespread outrage in Spain and other countries through whose airspace America regularly transported nuclear bombs. A large demonstration was held outside the U.S. Embassy in Spain. Four days after the accident, Spain stated that “the Palomares incident was evidence of the dangers created by NATO’s use of the Gibraltar airstrip.” Spain demanded America no longer fly nukes over their country, a concession the U.S. actually made. The incident also led the Philippines to restrict American use of their airspace.
The Thule Air Base B-52 Crash
Also called the Thule affair or Thule accident, this Broken Arrow involved an American B-52 bomber crash near the Thule Air Base in the Danish territory of Greenland, on January 21, 1968.
A B-52 carrying four B28FI thermonuclear weapons was flying a “Chrome Dome” mission over Baffin Bay. A fire broke out in the cabin, leading the crew to abandon the plane before it could execute an emergency landing at the Air Base. Six of the seven crew were able to eject to safety, but one did not have an ejection seat. He was killed during his escape attempt. The B-52 collided with sea ice. The nukes’ conventional explosives combusted, spraying radioactive material over a large area.
America and Denmark mounted a clean-up effort that failed to recover one of the nuke’s secondary stage. This marked the end of the “Chrome Dome” mission that had been running since 1960, that sent nuke-equipped planes on perpetual “alert” flights to the edge of Soviet airspace. The dangers of this program were too obvious to be ignored.
The Thule incident made headlines again in 1995, when a report was published proving that the government of Denmark had tacitly endorsed America storing nukes in Greenland. This was a violation of Denmark’s nuclear-free zone policy established in 1957.
The USS Scorpion Sinks
On May 22, 1968, the submarine USS Scorpion sank in ten thousand feet of ocean, about four hundred miles southwest of the Azores. Two Mark 45 ASTOR torpedoes tipped with nuclear warheads were lost in the sinking, and never recovered.
Around midnight on May 20, the Scorpion made frequent radio hails to Naval Station Rota, and continued hailing until after midnight of the next day. The sub could only reach a Navy station in Nea Makri, Greece. Their message was forwarded to ComSubLant. It said that the sub was nearing its surveillance target, a Soviet submarine and research group. Six days later, the submarine was reported missing.
The Navy declared the crew “presumed lost” on June 5. According to some reports, the Navy launched an extensive search, kept secret, three days before the Scorpion was due to return from its patrol. Some now believe that the Navy was aware the Scorpion had been destroyed well before a public search was mounted.
The Navy eventually released a sound recording from its SOSUS listening system of the Scorpion being destroyed. Parts of the Scorpion’s hull were found at around 9,800 feet deep. 99 crew members died in the attack on the USS Scorpion.
The Damascus Missile Explosion
In the final declassified Broken Arrow incident, maintenance on a nuclear-equipped Titan II ICBM resulted in a major incident.
A repairman working in the silo dropped a wrench socket, which rolled off his platform, fell down the silo, bounced, and hit the missile’s fuel tank. The entire missile complex had to be evacuated, as well as a large area surrounding the complex. Eight and a half hours after the fuel tank was damaged, fuel vapors inside the silo were ignited. One person was killed in the explosion and twenty-one others were injured. The ICBM’s re-entry vehicle was left intact, with its nuclear warhead inside. There was also no radioactive contamination.
If this list wasn’t alarming enough, consider the fact that there may be other Broken Arrow incidents that are still classified. This list also does not include similar nuclear incidents that occurred with bombs owned by other countries. Nuclear weapons are dangerous even when they are not being used. If you are inclined to believe that nuclear disarmament is a good idea, this list was probably grist for your mill. If you don’t, maybe these incidents give you a bit of pause. At the very least, nuclear weapons should be considered something that cannot be handled with 100% assured safety.