It’s been almost a year since we talked about the B-52 Stratofortress that crashed near Goldsboro, North Carolina. Time really flies. That accident, in 1961, was something of a nuclear “near miss” as the massive bomber was carrying a pair of Mk39 Hydrogen bombs. Back then, we kind of thought that there would be other incidents like this floating in historical space, simply because Strategic Air Command’s (SAC) readiness code required that some planes be ready on a moment’s notice. So they carried nukes. Today, we’ll look at another of those incidents, one with a less happy ending.
On January 17, 1966, another B-52 was in the process of in-air refueling. Now Mystery Science Theater 3000 fans will recall Episode 612 (The Starfighters) as not only one of the funniest episodes ever, but also as the one that featured the most in-air refueling footage ever gathered in one movie reel. And while Mike and the Bots make light of the process (for the sake of the movie), it really is one fraught with peril, with one (or more) planes trying to get really close to a tanker stuffed with flammable jet fuel.
Our subject B-52 was in the midst of a lengthy flight and preparing to refuel from a KC-135 Stratotanker in the Mediterranean not far from the coast of Spain. But the big bomber came in a little too fast and collided with the tanker’s refueling arm. The B-52 was heavily damaged and ultimately crashed, killing 4 of the 7 crew. The KC-135 exploded, killing all 4 crew.
But as you know from the intro, the big Stratofortress was not cargo-less. In its bomb bays were four Mk28 Hydrogen bombs. This bomb was somewhat smaller than the Mk39, possessing a full yield of about 1.5 megatons, but that’s still a tremendous punch. Three of these bombs fell near the quiet farming village of Palomares (on the southeast “corner” of Spain), and one fell in the Mediterranean itself.
Two of the bombs that hit solid ground exploded. But we’ve briefly touched on the basics of how nuclear weapons work. There’s a conventional explosion that serves to trigger the nuclear device. However, the nuke only detonates if all the “kill” switches are turned off. This mission was flown in peacetime, and so only the conventional weapon exploded. So while there was no giant mushroom cloud and instant vaporization, the explosions served to “crack the shells” and release radioactivity into the air.
The third and fourth bombs were recovered intact and Spain had been spared a nuclear holocaust, but roughly a square mile of Spanish territory had been contaminated by fallout. And of course, radioactivity hangs around for a long time. Much of the affected topsoil was brought to the U.S. for disposal, but even today, radioactivity is still being discovered. The United States and Spain continue the task of cleaning up a mess that occurred more than 40 years ago…a mess that, in 2009, Time Magazine called one of the worst nuclear disasters ever.
Recommended Reading: America’s Lost H-Bomb