Archive for August, 2009

You Dropped What…!

August 27, 2009

Tales from the Nuclear Age:

 Copyright © 2009 Charles Glassmire


Aug. 27, 2009

You Dropped What…!

 On the evening of February 4, 1958, Major Howard Richardson, United States Air Force, was scheduled for a Strategic Air Command training flight taking off from Homestead Air Force Base in Florida. Major Richardson was an experienced 36 year old SAC pilot, having flown bombing missions on D-Day in World War II, and later piloted C-47’s into Berlin during the Cold War Berlin Airlift. On this night he was the Aircraft Commander of a SAC B-47 Stratofortress, aircraft number 349, of the 19th Bombardment Wing. 349 was loaded with a Nuclear Weapon called a Mark 15,  and carried a crew of three.  On this mission Richardson’s aircraft was accompanied by a sister B-47.

 Broken Arrow is the military’s term for a lost nuclear weapon. A weapon which, by accident or intent, has been removed from control of US Military forces. Theoretically, under federal law in the 1950’s, all weapons and fissionable materials were officially owned by the Atomic Energy Commission, which determined the rules of usage and applications for operational use of these devices. The AEC in turn “loaned” weapons to the armed services, which used them for training and in other combat operations.

Mark 15 Mod 0 H bomb

Mark 15 Mod 0 H bomb

The device loaded into aircraft number 349 was known as the “Mark 15-Mod 0” Thermonuclear weapon. This is an early model H Bomb, measuring about eleven feet long and some three feet in diameter.  (see figure) It weighed 7,600 pounds, and was filled with Uranium 235 surrounded by 400 pounds of shaped plastic explosive. The nuclear explosive power of the Mark 15 is estimated at about two megatons of TNT equivalent. It was now resting snugly in the bomb bay of 349.

In order to detonate this weapon in a thermonuclear chain reaction explosion, a device called a “canister” is necessary. This device contains a secret code box, which must be primed with correct codes before it permits detonation. The canister also contains a special radionuclide device called the initiator, which provides neutrons to trigger the chain reaction at the moment of detonation. The codes were usually transmitted in time of war from the President’s notorious black box, which is housed inside a suitcase carried by a military aide, who follows POTUS around night and day. This suitcase is known as ”The Football”.

Before every training flight by the Strategic Air Command in those times, an AEC representative brought a canister out to the flight line and handed it off to the aircraft commander. He then signed a receipt for same, testifying he would use the device for transport and training and for no other purpose. When the aircraft completed its mission and landed, the canister was removed and handed back to the same officer. Without the canister inserted into the weapon in flight, the bomb (theoretically) cannot explode in a nuclear detonation. (The chemical explosive can still detonate, causing a smaller conventional explosion, scattering parts of the bomb around the area, but will not cause a nuclear event.) Whether the canister was installed or not that evening on 349’s weapon has since become a matter for intense discussion. (Training flights were sometimes run without the use of the canister.)

        As Richardson taxied 349 out to the runway’s end, he was aware that a long grueling mission was beginning. SAC missions were designed to simulate a wartime nuclear strike against the Soviet Union, the only other major player in the nuclear game at that time. So the distance covered was extensive, probably 5000 to 6000 miles, simulating the cross ocean and European path an attack aircraft would trace before entering enemy borders. It was a test of time and body functions for the crew. They were known to limit fluids for 24 hours before a mission, and needed to be in shape to handle the physical and mental fatigue of 10 or 12 hour flights in cramped quarters at high altitude. For this time in the air they were in charge of the most devastating weapon ever created in the history of warfare.

 Once airborne, the flight of two turned towards New Orleans and began ascending to an altitude of 37,000 feet. The mission called for the flight to turn northward, and fly to the Canadian border before executing a 180 degree turn and proceeding south. After the turn, it was necessary to descend to lower air and rendezvous with a KC-135 refueling tanker. After taking on fresh fuel, it was time to set up the bomb run to the target. From this point on the scenario noted the aircraft could expect to encounter “enemy” fighter aircraft, which would simulate hostile fighter interceptors.

Target for tonight was an electronic scoring radar system near Radford Va. Deep into the mission now, as 349 turned the IP for the run in, the Bombardier simulated dropping the device with the press of a control button.  The bomb simulated release, 349 turned away from the target, ground control instructed the crew that no further “hostiles” would be encountered, and the flight of two were cleared direct back to Homestead. Having been in the air for over 8 hours and 4500 miles, the two crews anticipated an easy run home. The flight of two loosened up and the trailing sister B-47 dropped many miles behind the 349 lead aircraft.

But someone didn’t get the word the game was over. Second Lieutenant Clarence Stewart and two wingmen were eagerly awaiting launch from Charleston Air Force Base in South Carolina. Anxious to get in their licks, they were told the bomber flight was fair game to intercept in their F-86L Sabrejets, all the way back to Homestead in Florida.

At nine minutes after midnight, the klaxon went off and the flight of three Sabrejets were eagerly climbing for altitude. They had been told the target was only one B-47, and somehow Ground Intercept had locked onto only the rear bomber. The fighters were given vectors to the trailing aircraft, and Stewart’s radar curiously did not see Richardson’s 349 lead aircraft. Suddenly, Stewart looked up from his radar to “see the sky filled with aircraft”. He banked right but his wing collided with 349’s wing, sheared off and dislodged the bombers outboard engine.  349’s wing fuel tank was punctured and fell away. Stewart had to eject, and was later found 40 miles away in a Georgia swamp.

Richardson saw a “flash of flame and a heavy jolt to the right”. As he looked out he saw a hole in the wing and the outboard right engine just “hanging” off the wing. The auxiliary fuel tank was missing, and the bomber started plummeting to earth. He struggled with the controls. The two crew were ready to eject, but he cautioned them to sit tight as he gained minimal control. He leveled the plane at 20,000 feet. He was able to lower the landing gear and contacted the nearest field, Hunter Air Force Base outside of Savannah Georgia. He knew if the gear or the dangling engine hit the raised end of the runway at 200 knots, the nuclear weapon would careen forward through the crew compartment “like a bullet out of a rifle”.

When aircrew lives are in danger, Air Force protocol gives the Aircraft Commander the authority of the captain on a ship at sea. He may take extraordinary actions to save the lives of his crew. Now down to an altitude of 7500 feet and 200 knots, Richardson elected to steer his aircraft out over water off Georgia, and he informed the tower he was going to release his weapon. The bomb dropped into water later estimated to be about 15 feet deep. No explosion was seen when the bomb impacted the water near Tybee Island Georgia. He landed the aircraft safely but 349 was never to fly again.

Now a two megaton H bomb in an unknown condition lay quietly underwater some 20 miles from Savannah Georgia …

(to be continued)

The Decision

August 20, 2009

Tales from the Nuclear Age:

© 2009 by Charles Glassmire

(Stories as true as my memory recalls)


 Aug. 20, 2009

The Decision

 A bird landed in the rocket engine? Some theorized the nitrogen flooding the engine to prevent a graphite fire had suffocated it. When faced with an unknown situation, the next step in the engineering mind is to ”gather data”. So it was to be. Since no one could approach this giant NRX-A5 nuclear reactor engine, to look inside the cooling rocket nozzle, a substitute was sent into the game. The 80 ton robot was nicknamed “Beastie”.  The robot had been originally created for the Nuclear Aircraft Program (ANP). (Yes, earlier in the Nuclear Age, there was a design for a nuclear powered airplane – an aircraft powered with a nuclear reactor inside instead of jet engines-it could fly for weeks without refueling). This Beastie was now used in the NERVA program and was made of metal and electronics. It was mounted on caterpillar treads, and carried hand manipulators and fire suppression tools. It had a compartment for an operator, or could be operated remotely from afar. This Davids’ “slingshot” was a television camera which could see inside the darkened interior of the cooling Goliath. It could enter high gamma/neutron radiation fields where no man would survive.

 Slowly the beast trundled across the intervening sands, nuzzled up to the NERVA A5 engine, hoisted its camera up high, turned on its photo light and daintily peered inside the rocket nozzle. Back at control, photographs were taken of the TV screen, as Beastie peered around the dark and shadowy interior.

 Back at the Astronuclear Laboratory, engineers walked the halls with concerned expressions. The photos were due back from the site, and the team was on adrenalin high. An emergency meeting was called of highly trained multiply-degreed scientists and engineers. I watched with the others, as images of the bottom of the core were projected onto a screen in the darkened room. Ends of the core support plate could be seen. Dark shadows hovered around the edges of the distorted wide angle black and white photos. Light glinted from the eyeglasses of the audience as heads turned expectantly searching for a bird-like image. Nowhere among the shadows did anything appear resembling the live creature which had soared in the sunlight. Only dark irregular shapes, and silence in the room except for muffled coughs.

Another slide was tried; then a different magnification. Other angles were examined. Different lens focal lengths were dialed in. Finally, one of the braver observers rushed to the screen and pointed to a shape on the edge.

“This could be a leg…” he offered. But others nodded in disagreement.

Another rushed up, pointing to another shadow.

“No, No. Here is part of the wing. See this is a feather…I think”.

And so it went long into the afternoon.

            They were some of academics finest – PhD’s arguing, debating over shadows, forming shapes and outlines, each projecting his own mind’s eye onto the screen. They stood before the group, mixing their own shadows with the projected images. Each hand gestured in the air, fingers pointing, recreating that old children’s game of gesticulating shadow puppets. Bugs Bunny’s wiggly ears, gesturing in a black and white world of shapes, here is a talking squirrel, right here is the beak, or a head. No, no. Searching for a winged wonder no more to glide and soar into blue skies and beams of sun, and landed for the last time into a world of shadows. This creature would fly no more in this strange new world.

             Eventually the carcass was located, and, using its robot arm, Beastie was able to scrape a mass of goop and feathers from the bottom of the cooling engine. It was a mass now highly radioactive, to be “buried” in a 50 gallon drum with other radioactive debris, and whose only headstone was the three bladed magenta and yellow propeller stenciled on the side of the barrel declaring “Radioactive Waste” to mark its’ gentle end.

              As to the Decision, whether to restart the engine and complete the test specification, there was more to the story. If even one tiny coolant channel was blocked, a restart could destroy the engine and the program. First the dilemma was presented to the Test Director. He opted out and kicked the discussion upstairs. Thence, to the Director of the Test Site; who did no better. Then back to the Westinghouse Astronuclear Laboratory which had built the engine and was responsible for the test. The Astro Lab Director declined to judge.

 Now the NERVA Program was a joint effort of the Atomic Energy Commission and NASA. A new project office had been created called the Space Nuclear Propulsion Office (SNPO – we pronounced it “snow’ po”). This office supervised all things relating to nuclear NERVA and coordinated the AEC and NASA interests. This level was unable to make a decision. So it went on to the Director of the Atomic Energy Commission. He thought the issue should be decided by NASA, since they would ultimately deploy the device in space. The Director of NASA was unable to decide.

 None of the above would step forward to such a serious issue, involving millions (1960’s dollars) and the reputation of the whole NERVA program. Eventually the decision went all the way to the place where the buck always stops, the office of the President of the United States. At the White House, President Richard Nixon finally decided the NRX-A5 would be restarted. So the engine was restarted, and the test parameters were run and completed successfully with no unusual damage to the data or the reactor, despite the brief visit from one small wayward traveler.

 And so it was to pass one summer of the Nuclear Age.

(to be continued)

August 9, 2009

Tales from the Nuclear Age:

© 2009 by Charles Glassmire


Aug. 8, 2009

A Wayward Traveler

The Nevada Nuclear Test Site (NTS) lies ninety miles northwest of Las Vegas, nestled in 1300 square miles of burnt sand and cactus, suitable only to the rattlesnakes, scorpions and cockroaches who love its flavors.  Add in a certain incestuous group of scientists and engineers who had gathered there in the 1960’s, to build several strange kinds of devices, which were to change all of our lives forever.

 To get to the “site”, one boarded a bus from the motel parking lot in Las Vegas at the ungodly hour of 5:45 a.m., and stumbled aboard to fall quickly back to sleep. There was no speed limit in Nevada, so, over the next 1.5 hours, the bus maneuvered into a long line of traffic which sped at ninety miles per hour northward along the two-lane asphalt of U.S. 95. It was a non-stop, bumper to bumper suicide train of racing vehicles, hell bent on getting to work on time at the Site.  The locals joked that the highway was nicknamed “the Widow Maker” by the newspapers. It was said that once a driver drifted off to sleep along the way, his car would slowly veer off the berm of the road into the sand and cactus, and all one saw from a distance was the vehicle disappearing in a great cloud of 90 mph dust as it was slowly ground to pieces by the desert sand.

 Looking out the bus window that day, I was a young nuclear engineer, working for the Westinghouse Astronuclear Laboratory in Pittsburgh, on a project with the code name of NERVA (Nuclear Engine for Rocket Vehicle Applications). Basically, you built a high powered nuclear reactor and stuffed it into a rocket engine. You blew cryogenic liquid Hydrogen through the reactor operating at 2500° Centigrade (4530° F), and the gas expanded out the rear-end rocket nozzle, giving you enough thrust to ride it to Mars (and back). The trick was to get the whole thing to hang together long enough to get the burn you needed to kick out of earth orbit. Ordinary metals would simply liquefy or melt in such a white hot temperature environment. Another trick was protecting the human passengers from the intense radiation field once the reactor was turned on.

 We had brought our baby out into the Nevada nuclear testing range, because the rocket engine exhaust gas was highly radioactive. So we had come to the land of atomic weapons to add our radioisotope collection to what had been deposited since 1951 by a long series of Atomic Bomb tests. To perform our experiment, you stood the engine upside down in a monster test stand out in the desert, and turned it on from a remote control point, hoping for the best. The previous engine test was named NRX-A5 (NERVA Reactor Experiment A5). There had been a bizarre problem on that one. After the reactor had tested successfully and met its test design goals, the engine was highly radioactive and flush with fission products. So it was customary to wheel it out into the desert a half mile or so away from the test stand on a flatbed railroad car, and let it sit there for several weeks to “cool” and let some of the active nuclides decay away. Then, in a second phase of the test, the reactor was supposed to be restarted after cooling. Once you got to Mars, you had to be able to restart the engine for the ride back home.

 While sitting calmly out there in the sand, it seems a desert bird came nonchalantly flying along in the middle of the day, looking for dinner. It flew towards the cooling reactor, later estimated at a height of about thirty to fifty feet above ground. Now birds, it turns out, have highly sensitive nervous systems. You recall the old coal miner’s trick of using canaries in cages to detect traces of methane in the mines, at levels far lower than humans could detect. If the canary died, you got out of the mine “real quick like”.  Bird nervous systems are delicate and especially sensitive to radiation. So along came our winged traveler, and sadly, the intense radiation field killed this bird in flight, before it even got near the reactor engine, and it performed an amazing graceful arc through the air to its last ill-fated landing, and, fell directly into the rocket nozzle of the hot rocket engine! It was likely the most unusual demise in avian history.

 Now there was a real dilemma. The hundreds of thousands of dollars spent on this test, and the post test examination were at risk being destroyed by melted bird. Because of the radiation field, no human could go within a half mile of the engine to retrieve the unfortunate visitor. This was critical. Should we scrub the restart and lose priceless data? This would set back the entire project six months to a year in time and budget. If we went ahead to restart, there was a chance that melted bird had plugged up some of the cooling channels through the reactor. This could cause the fuel rods to overheat, possibly shatter and cause terrible damage to the reactor, to the test results, and to the reputation of the designers of the whole project.

 Exercising his leadership role, the Test Director called a meeting and decided… to do nothing. He would not make the decision. There was too much at stake. What to do? …

(to be continued)