The Buzz

In 1968, a B-52 Bomber Crashed (With 4 Super Lethal Nuclear Weapons Onboard That 'Exploded')

Throughout the 1950s and ’60s American bombers carrying nuclear weapons crisscrossed the globe, ready at a moment’s notice to fly into the heart of Russia and bomb it back to the stone age. Strategic Air Command — a now defunct branch of the U.S. Air Force — commanded this airborne alert force.

It was once the pride of the American military. For more than a decade, SAC bombers were no more than 15 minutes from nuking Russia. But the shifts on the bombers were long — sometimes more than 24 hours — and keeping such an alert force ready was taxing on pilots and crew.

There were many accidents.

In 1958, a B-47 carrying a nuke collided with an F-86 Sabre in the skies above Savannah, Georgia. The B-47 jettisoned its nuclear payload into the Atlantic Ocean. Authorities never recovered the bomb.

Months later, another B-47 dropped its nuke over South Carolina when a bomb technician aboard accidentally activated the emergency release. The bomb’s conventional explosives detonated and destroyed a nearby house.

In 1966, a B-52 crashed in Spain, spilling the nuclear guts of two bombs onto nearby farms. After the accident, Spain halted nuclear-armed American planes from passing through its air space.

Those were bad, but SAC and its airborne alert survived them. Then, in 1968, a B-52 crashed near Thule Monitoring Station in Greenland and spilled its payload all over the ice. It was one disaster too many, and it signaled the end of America’s airborne alert program … and Strategic Air Command’s prestige.

After World War II and through the ’50s, SAC worked to put more nukes on more planes. In a nuclear war, it seemed, victory would go to the aggressor. America wouldn’t throw the first nuke, but it wanted to make sure it was ready to strike back hard if Moscow dropped the bomb.

SAC soon reasoned that it could shave time off its bombing strategy if it had bombers in the air 24 hours per day, seven days a week. It may seem insane now, but it happened. In 1960, the flying branch began Operation Chrome Dome.

For the next eight years, SAC’s airborne alert bombers were always in the air and ready to drop a nuke on the Kremlin.

But there was a problem. How would America know Russia had attacked? The United States had established a perimeter of radar stations called the Ballistic Missile Early Warning System, but radar, computing and radio communication were new technologies prone to outages.

If a U.S. radar station went silent, how would the military discern whether it was because of an attack or a technical problem? This was a major concern at Thule, where the harsh Arctic climate often shut down the base’s radar and radio towers, blacking out communication.

Worse, Thule was one of America’s most important monitoring stations. If the Russians attacked, the military reasoned, they would use the polar route across Greenland to do it.

“I like to tell the commander at Thule that he will probably be one of the first ones to go if we go to war, but that there is one thing I would like to know from him and that is when he went,” Gen. Thomas Power, then head of Strategic Air Command, said at the time.

The Arctic’s climate is harsh and the radar station was fragile. Outages were frequent, and SAC needed redundancy to ensure that it didn’t attack Moscow just because it lost contact with Thule.

So SAC did what it always did. It strapped some nukes on a bomber. The air command sent one of its airborne alert bombers — complete with live nukes — to fly above the Thule monitoring station 24 hours a day … forever.

It seemed silly to keep live nukes in the air above the world’s head all day, every day. It was a sword of Damocles and it dropped in 1968.

On Jan. 21, 1968, fire swept through the cabin of the airborne B-52 watching Thule station. Smoke and flames consumed the plane and the seven crew members ejected. Six survived. The bomber crashed into an ice cap in the bay near the base.

The conventional explosives in the plane’s four hydrogen bombs exploded and cracked their nuclear payloads. Radioactive elements slid out of the bombs and onto the ice.

SAC’s Operation Chrome Dome was already on its last legs. The Thule accident just confirmed what many politicians and military leader already thought — keeping a fleet of nuclear-armed bombers in the air at all times was dangerous and insane.

In any case, politicians, the public and the military had gradually turned against the idea. The development of submarine-launched and intercontinental ballistic missiles, the need for bombers in Vietnam and preceding accidents before Thule didn’t help.

The next day, “SAC terminated the carrying of nuclear weapons aboard airborne alert aircraft,” Brig. Gen. Marshall Garth wrote in a memo. Just seven days later, SAC stopped carrying nukes on all its bombers.

This was how America balanced its nuclear triad. Bombers were and are still an important part of that strategy. But in the wake of Thule, the American military put more of its faith in ICBMs and SLBMs. A Dexedrine powered fleet of nuclear-armed bombers in the air was just too dangerous.

Only one of the B-52’s crew died during the Thule disaster, but his death wasn’t the end of the tragedy. The hydrogen bombs spread jet fuel and radioactive materials across the ice cap. It busted up the flow of the sea, blackened the ice and spread plutonium, uranium, americium and tritium into the ice and water.

Denmark — which ruled Greenland at the time — was angry. The Danes and the Americans came together quickly to clean up the mess in an effort Washington called Project Crested Ice.