Consider this long post a crude proselytizing effort in this holiday season for those who doubt the existence of God, angels, guardians, guides, benevolent spirits, or deities of any kind or persuasion. One way to get religion is to have two near-death experiences and three surgeries in a year. I do not recommend this. Another is to read about US nuclear weapon-related aircraft accidents that could have turned very ugly. Thomas D. Reed and Danny B. Stillman list no less than fifteen serious accidents during the peak periods of 1950 and 1956-1958 in appendices at the back of The Nuclear Express (2010).
These lists may not be exhaustive. For example, Sam Black, who updated these tables for me when he was working at the Stimson Center, found a reference to an accident on January 9, 1956 involving a B-36 bomber in a February 1991 report by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. If readers can confirm or know more about this event, please send word. Here are Sam’s other additions:
January 18, 1959, Unspecified Pacific Base. A grounded F-100 interceptor carrying a nuclear weapon without its fissile core burst into flames when its external fuel tanks were inadvertently jettisoned during a practice alert. The fire was doused in less than ten minutes and there were no reported contamination or cleanup problems.
July 6, 1959, Barksdale Air Force Base, Bossier City, Louisiana. A C-124 aircraft transporting a nuclear weapon without its fissile core crashed during takeoff, completely destroying the aircraft and nuclear weapon.
September 25, 1959, Off Whidbey Island, Washington. A U.S. Navy P-5M aircraft carrying a nuclear depth charge without its fissile core crashed into Puget Sound near Whidbey Island, Washington. The weapon was never recovered.
October 15, 1959, Hardinsberg, Kentucky. A B-52 bomber carrying two atomic bombs collided at 32,000 feet with a KC-135 refueling aircraft shortly after initiating refueling procedures near Hardinsberg, Kentucky. The ensuing crash killed eight crew members and partially burned one of the weapons. No nuclear material was reportedly released, and the unarmed weapons were recovered intact. Both planes had departed from Columbus Air Force Base in Mississippi.
January 24, 1961, Goldsboro, North Carolina. A B-52 bomber on airborne alert carrying two nuclear weapons with their fissile cores broke apart in midair. The B-52 experienced structural failure in its right wing. The aircraft’s breakup released the two weapons from a height of 2,000-10,000 feet. One of the bomb’s parachutes deployed properly and that weapon’s damage was minimal. However, the second bomb’s parachute malfunctioned and the weapon broke apart upon impact, scattering its components over a wide area. Published reports indicated that five of the six safety devices on this weapon failed.
January 16, 1961, Undisclosed U.S. Air Force Base, Great Britain. A nuclear bomber on airborne alert crashed on takeoff causing spilled fuel to erupt into flames which engulfed the aircraft at an undisclosed USAF base in Great Britain. A nuclear weapon mounted on the aircraft’s centerline pylon was badly damaged before the fire could be extinguished. The U.S. Government has not acknowledged the accident and it is not included on the Pentagon’s list of broken arrows.
January 19, 1961, Monticello, Utah. A B-52 bomber carrying one or more nuclear weapons was reported to have exploded in midair north of Monticello, Utah. The bomber had left Biggs AFB near El Paso, Texas, bound for Bismarck, North Dakota, on a routine training mission. Near Monticello the aircraft began climbing from 36,000 to 40,000 feet and soon experienced severe difficulties. The aircraft descended rapidly and at an elevation of 7,000 feet broke into several pieces that landed within an area two miles wide by 11 miles long. Observers on the ground said the plane’s left-wing engine caught fire, after which there was a midair explosion. Five crewmen were killed in the accident.
March 14, 1961, Yuba City, California. A B-52 bomber carrying two nuclear weapons crashed. The weapons’ high explosive did not detonate and their safety devices worked properly. The aircraft had departed from Mather Air Force Base near Sacramento and was forced to descend to 10,000 feet after the crew compartment pressurization system failed.
January 13, 1964, Cumberland, Maryland. A B-52D bomber carrying two nuclear weapons crashed approximately 17 miles southwest of Cumberland, Maryland. The nuclear weapons were being ferried from Westover Air Force Base in Chicopee Falls, Massachusetts, to its home base at Turner Air Force Base in Albany, Georgia, when it encountered violent turbulence and suffered structural failure. Both weapons were recovered.
December 8, 1964, Bunker Hill (now Grissom) Air Force Base, Peru, Indiana. A B-58 bomber lost control and slid off a runway during taxi, causing portions of the five nuclear weapons onboard to burn in an ensuing fire. There were reportedly no detonations and contamination was limited to the immediate area of the crash.
October 11, 1965, Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, near Dayton, Ohio. A C-124 transport aircraft containing nuclear weapon components and a dummy training device caught fire while being refueled. The fire started at the aft end of the refueling trailer and destroyed the aircraft’s fuselage. There were no casualties and the resultant radiation hazard was reported to be minimal.
December 5, 1965, Aboard the USS Ticonderoga (CVA-14) in the Pacific Ocean. An A-4E Skyhawk aircraft carrying a B-43 H-bomb rolled off an elevator on the U.S. aircraft carrier Ticonderoga and fell into the sea. Officials feared that intense water pressure could have caused the B-43 hydrogen bomb to explode.
January 17, 1966, Palomares, Spain. A B-52 bomber carrying four hydrogen bombs collided in midair with a KC-135 tanker near Palomares, Spain. Of the four H-bombs aboard, two weapons’ high explosive material exploded on ground impact, releasing radioactive materials, including plutonium, around Palomares. Approximately 1,400 tons of slightly contaminated soil and vegetation were later taken to the United States for storage at an approved site. A third nuclear weapon fell to earth but remained relatively intact; the last one fell into the ocean.
January 21, 1968, Thule, Greenland. Four nuclear bombs were destroyed in a fire after the B-52 bomber carrying them crashed approximately seven miles southwest of the runway at Thule Air Force Base in Greenland. The B-52, from Plattsburgh Air Force Base in New York, crashed after a fire broke out in the navigator’s compartment. The pilot attempted an emergency landing. Upon impact with the ground, the plane burst into flames, igniting the high explosive outer coverings of at least one of the bombs. The explosive then detonated, scattering plutonium and other radioactive materials over an area about 300 yards on either side of the plane’s path.
February 14, 1974, Plattsburgh AFB, New York. The nose landing gear of a USAF FB-111 carrying two short range attack air-to-surface missiles and two nuclear bombs collapsed as the aircraft was commencing an engine run-up during an alert exercise. There was no damage to the weapons and they were unloaded without incident.
September 15, 1980, Grand Forks AFB, North Dakota. A B-52H bomber carrying nuclear-armed AGM-69 short range attack missiles caught fire while on the ground during an alert exercise. Wind conditions and the efforts of firefighters permitted the recovery of the missiles.