You Dropped What…!

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)

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