Monday, 15 August 2016

U.S. Nuclear Bomb Accidents (Part 1)                                      

The term “Broken Arrows” is used to describe nuclear accidents that don’t create the risk of a bringing on a nuclear war. Examples include accidental nuclear detonations or non-nuclear detonations of nuclear weapons. So far, the US Department of Defense recognizes 32 such incidents. They’re sobering examples of how one tiny mistake could potentially cause massive unintentional damage. Fortunately, the bombs didn’t explode. In this article, I will give you examples of some of those accidents.

The first recorded American military nuclear weapon loss took place in British Columbia on February 14, 1950. A Convair B-36 was on its way from Eielson Air Force Base near Fairbanks, Alaska to the Carswell Air Force Base in Fort Worth, Texas. The bomber was scheduled to take part in a mission that simulated a nuclear attack on San Francisco. The role of the bomber was to see if these kinds of planes could perform bomb runs in extremely cold weather. That way, the military could see how the bomber would perform if it ever got attacked by the Soviets and had to respond.    

Because it was meant to go on a mock bomb run, the plane was carrying a Mark IV atomic bomb. However, the military wasn’t actually planning to nuke anybody, so the bomb didn’t contain the plutonium core necessary for a nuclear detonation. Even so, it still had about 2,250 kilograms (5,000 lb) of regular explosives, so the Mark IV could still create a huge explosion.

In one way, the mission was a success. The military wanted to find out whether or not the B-36 could attack the Soviets during the Arctic winter, and they learned the answer—it couldn’t. Due to the harsh weather conditions, three of the six engines failed. The crew was forced to bail out, but they first jettisoned the Mark IV and detonated it over the Inside Passage in Canada. Five of the 17 men aboard the B-36 died as a result of the crashing of the plane.
In 1950, one of the most serious broken arrows in terms of loss of life occurred, The incident took place at the Fairfield-Suisun Air Force Base in California. The Korean War was raging, and the military was transporting a load of Mark IV nuclear bombs to Guam. Ten B-29 bombers were loaded with one nuclear weapon each.
 Shortly after takeoff, one of the planes developed engine trouble. General Travis who was aboard that plane, ordered it back to the base, but an error prevented the landing gear from deploying. The pilot had to crash-land the B-29 in a remote area of the base. Of the 20 people aboard the plane, 12 died on impact, including Travis. Ground personnel tried to put out the fire before the bomb would explode, but the Mark IV detonated, and the 2,300 kilograms (5,000 lb) of conventional explosives caused a massive blast that killed seven more people.
 The military tried to cover up the incident by claiming that the plane was loaded with only conventional explosives. The accident report made no mention of nuclear weapons aboard the bomber. By the end, 19 people were dead, and almost 180 were injured. Among the victims was Brigadier General Robert F. Travis. The base was soon renamed “Travis Air Force Base” in honor of the general.
 On March 10, 1956, a B-47 Stratojet took off from MacDill Air Force Base in Florida carrying capsules with nuclear weapon cores. It was headed to a then-undisclosed foreign military base, later revealed to be Ben Guerir Air Base in Morocco. During the flight, the bomber was supposed to undergo two aerial refueling sessions. The first one went off without a hitch. When the second tanker arrived to meet up with the B-47, the bomber was nowhere to be found.
 And it was never found again. It had disappeared without a trace over the Mediterranean Sea. The Royal Navy organized extensive searches assisted by French and Moroccan troops stationed in the area. The best they could come up with is a report that the plane went down somewhere near a coastal village in Algeria called Port Say. The plane and its cargo was eventually classified lost at sea,” and the three crew members were declared dead.

 Mars Bluff is a tiny, unincorporated community located in Florence County, South Carolina. However, it does have one claim to fame—on March 11, 1958, Mars Bluff was accidentally bombed by the United States Air Force with a Mark 6 nuke.
 A Boeing B-47E-LM Stratojet departed from Hunter Air Force Base in Savannah, Georgia and was headed to England. It was part of Operation Snow Flurry, in which bombers flew to England to perform mock drops to test their accuracy. This particular Boeing had a Mark VI nuclear bomb onboard. As with the British Columbia incident, the bomb was inactive but still had thousands of pounds of explosives.

This accident was entirely the captain’s fault. While he was performing checks on the bomb, he accidentally grabbed the emergency release pin. This released the bomb from its harness, and it fell right through the bomber doors to the ground 4,500 meters (15,000 ft) below.
 The bomb landed on the house of Walter Gregg. Fortunately, nobody was killed in the ensuing explosion, although Gregg and five other family members were injured. Gregg sued the Air Force and was awarded $54,000 in damages, which is almost $500,000 in today’s money.

The year 1958 wasn’t a brilliant year for the US military. There were  three broken arrow incidents that year, this time second incident took place in the waters off Tybee Island near Savannah, Georgia.
 A 3,500-kilogram (7,600 lb) Mark 15 nuclear bomb was aboard a B-47 bomber engaged in standard practice exercises. What was not so standard was an accidental collision with an F-86 fighter plane, significantly damaging the B-47’s wing. The bomber was barely airborne, so the crew jettisoned the bomb in preparation for an emergency landing.
 The bomb was jettisoned over the waters of the Savannah River. To the crew’s surprise, they never heard an explosion. The pilot guided the bomber safely to the nearest air force base and even received a Distinguished Flying Cross for his actions. However, there was still one question left unanswered—where was the giant nuclear bomb?
 That’s a question still unanswered today. The bomb was never found. Even now, over 58 years after the accident, people are still looking for it. Experts agree that the bomb ended up somewhere at the bottom of the Wassaw Sound, where it should still be today, buried under several feet of silt.

This next incident is a unique case, even for a Broken Arrow, and it goes to show that even obsolete nuclear weapons need to be handled with care as they are still dangerous.
 The incident took place at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio. Specifically, it occurred at the Medina Base, an annex formerly used as a National Stockpile Site. Back in the ’60s, it was also used to decommission and disassemble old nuclear weapons.
 On November 13, 1963, the annex experienced a massive chemical explosion when 56,000 kilograms (123,000 lb—61.5 tons) of non-nuclear explosives detonated. Shockingly, there were no casualties, and only three workers received minor injuries. The nuclear components were stored in a different part of the building, so radioactive contamination was minimal. It is unknown as to what caused the explosives to detonate.
 The incident became public immediately but didn’t cause a big stir because it was overshadowed when, just a few days later, President Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas. 

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