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How the U.S. Narrowly Avoided a Nuclear Holocaust 33 Years Ago, and Still Risks Catastrophe Today

Thirty-three years ago to the day, the United States narrowly missed a nuclear holocaust on its soil, in Damascus Arkansas.


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Comment by Tony Nuspl on January 12, 2017 at 2:22pm

Thirty-six years later, the nuclear weapon accident in Damascus, Arkansas, finally gets its own documentary.

If you missed the first airing of "Command and Control" part of the American Experience series on PBS TV, you can either catch a re-run (re-broadcast on OETA Channel 11-2 on Friday 13 Jan 2017 @ 7pm), or you can watching via streaming video online, at the WGBH website:


Thank goodness there are no more Titan II weapons or similar nukes in Arkansas today.  Now, if we could only get rid of the Minuteman ICBMs, also considered insecure --and unneeded-- today, in the American Midwest.

Comment by Tony Nuspl on August 12, 2016 at 10:01am

On May 23, 1967, a solar storm nearly fooled American high command into thinking that a Soviet nuclear attack was on the way.

On that day, the US military nuclear command went into panic mode when signals from all three of the Ballistic Missile Early Warning System (BMEWS) sites in the far northern hemisphere (one apiece at Alaska, Thule in Greenland, and a base in the UK's county of Yorkshire) shut down simultaneously.

"Revealed: How a weather forecast in 1967 stopped nuclear war"

by Iain Thomson
10 Aug 2016

Comment by Tony Nuspl on June 18, 2014 at 1:58am

More on the 1961 "broken arrow" (see below, bottom of list):

Nuclear bomb nearly detonated in 1961 over North Carolina, declassified report says
By Dan Lamothe

10 June 2014

There are few things in this world that can change the course of history faster than a nuclear bomb exploding. The devastation is immediate and lasts for years.

That makes the latest details to emerge about a Jan. 24, 1961, incident involving two nuclear bombs all the more jarring. A B-52 bomber broke up in the sky over North Carolina, and one of the two bombs on board was in the "armed" setting by the time it hit the ground near Goldsboro, North Carolina, according to a newly declassified report published Monday by the National Security Archive. If the switch had not been damaged by the impact of the crash, the weapon could have detonated, the report said.

The so-called "Goldsboro incident" received widespread attention in the fall, when details about the incident were published in a new book, "Command and Control," by Eric Schlosser. And it sounds just as ominous as described Monday by Bill Burr of the National Security Archives.

"The report implied that because Weapon 2 landed in a free-fall, without the parachute operating, the timer did not initiate the bomb's high voltage battery ("trajectory arming"), a step in the arming sequence," Burr wrote. "For Weapon 2, the Arm/Safe switch was in the "safe" position, yet it was virtually armed because the impact shock had rotated the indicator drum to the "armed" position. But the shock also damaged the switch contacts, which had to be intact for the weapon to detonate."

Burr concluded:

"Perhaps this is what Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara had in mind, a few years later, when he observed that, 'by the slightest margin of chance, literally the failure of two wires to cross, a nuclear explosion was averted.'"

Three U.S. Air Force personnel in the B-52 died after the plane broke up that day. They were Sgt. Francis Roger Barnish, Maj. Eugene Holcombe Richards, and Maj. Eugene Shelton.

Washington Post


Comment by Tony Nuspl on January 18, 2014 at 12:08am

Cheating on proficiency exams.by dozens of US nuclear missile officers

Tom McCarthy in New York

15 January 2014

A US air force investigation into illegal drug use by officers charged with overseeing and launching nuclear missiles expanded on Wednesday when the military announced the suspension of dozens of additional officers for cheating on proficiency exams.

The cheating came to light during the investigation of the drug scandal, the air force said. The drug probe was first announced last Thursday. 

In all, 11 air force officers are suspected of illegal drug use, and 34 officers have been implicated in cheating, according to the military.

Air force chief of staff Mark Welsh said it could be the biggest such scandal in the history of the intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) force.

The entire ICBM launch officer force of about 600 is being retested this week. The drug investigation that led to the discovery of alleged cheating was disclosed by the Pentagon last week. It said then that it involved 10 officers at six bases — five in the US and one in the UK. On Wednesday, the air force said the number of suspects has grown to 11.

Missile-launch officers work in part in underground bunkers on bases equipped with nuclear-tipped intercontinental ballistic missiles. 

Revelations of misconduct and incompetence in the nuclear missile program go back at least to 2007, when six nuclear-tipped cruise missiles were accidentally loaded onto a B-52 bomber in Minot, North Dakota, and flown to a base in Louisiana.

Last March, military inspectors gave officers at the ICBM base in Minot the equivalent of a "D" grade for launch mastery. A month later, 17 officers were stripped of their authority to launch the missiles.

In October, a senior air force officer in charge of 450 ICBMS, major general Michael Carey, was fired after accusations of drunken misconduct during a summer trip to Moscow. An internal investigation found that Carey drank heavily...


Comment by Tony Nuspl on January 12, 2014 at 7:08pm

Nuke Bomber Crashed 50 Years Ago in Western Maryland

GRANTSVILLE, Md. January 11, 2014 (AP)

By David Dishneau, Associated Press

The storm-driven crash of a nuclear bomber in western Maryland in 1964 made an indelible impact on the Cold War program that put the crew and public at risk.

Fifty years later, Operation Chrome Dome is nearly forgotten, but memories of the crash on Big Savage Mountain remain painfully fresh among the crew members' families and the rural Appalachian residents who helped recover the bodies.

Gary Finzel, 69, said his overnight trek through hip-deep snow with five others to recover the frozen remains of Air Force Maj. Robert Lee Payne was the worst night of his life.

"I can see him sitting there on his hunkers on the banks" of Poplar Lick, Finzel said Tuesday. "I still see him the same as if it was yesterday."

The accident on Jan. 13, 1964, is memorialized by stone markers in tiny Grantsville, about 140 miles west of Baltimore, and at the spots where three of the five crew members died. Payne succumbed to exposure in the Savage River State Forest after ejecting from the crippled B-52. Bombardier Maj. Robert Townley's remains were found in the wreckage on adjacent private land. The tail gunner, Tech Sgt. Melvin F. Wooten, bailed out and died from exposure and injuries near Salisbury, Pa., nearly 15 miles north of the crash site.

The pilot, Maj. Thomas W. McCormick, and co-pilot Capt. Parker C. "Mack" Peedin ejected and survived. Neither is still living.

A heavily redacted Air Force report on the accident attributes the crash to a bulkhead structural failure that caused the vertical fin to separate from the plane during weather-related turbulence. But Wooten's widow, Carol, of Hermosa, S.D., called it the result of a "stupid" Strategic Air Command decision to fly the plane that night. She was left with three young children, including a newborn.

All the crew members were from Turner Air Force Base in Albany, Ga., the plane's home base. They were flown on Jan. 12 to Westover Air Force Base in Massachusetts to bring the B-52 and its two bombs back to Georgia. Foul weather had forced the plane to land at Westover during its return from Europe, where it had had an engine failure.

The delays threatened to disrupt Operation Chrome Dome, an airborne nuclear deterrence program that operated mainly from 1961 to 1968. It aimed to keep 12 bombers airborne at all times, flown by crews on 24-hour missions.

The program's B-52s had had two crashes before the Maryland accident, both in 1961, said Rebecca Grant, an independent researcher and author who has worked for the Air Force secretary and the Air Force chief of staff. The bombs were unarmed, meaning they couldn't explode, but there was a risk of accidental loss of nuclear material, Grant said.

The Maryland accident, after nearly three crash-free years, underscored the folly of trying to keep nuclear bombers aloft at all times, regardless of the weather, Grant said.

"It was probably the worst crash with nuclear weapons on American soil, and it was truly an accident — a weather-caused aircraft accident," she said. "I think it pointed out that the risks were awful high, really too high."

It took the Air Force days to recover the bombs from the remote crash site, using equipment supplied by a local quarry operator, said Gerald Beachy of the Grantsville Community Museum, which has amassed a collection of crash memorabilia and wreckage pieces.


Comment by Tony Nuspl on October 13, 2013 at 1:48pm

Two dramatic 'Broken Arrow' incidents from 1962 have yet to be acknowledged by the US government, according to the website Aerospaceweb:

4 June 1962: The United States attempted its first high-altitude atmospheric nuclear test by placing a nuclear device atop a Thor rocket. The rocket was launched from Johnston Atoll in the Pacific Ocean but the tracking system failed during flight and the rocket had to be destroyed. The rocket's nuclear payload is believed to have vaporized before reaching the ocean.

20 June 1962: A second attempt to detonate a nuclear weapon at high altitudes also failed when the Thor booster rocket shut down prematurely a minute after launch. The vehicle had to be destroyed at an altitude of about 35,000 ft (10,670 m) above Johnston Atoll. The nuclear device being tested also fell into the Pacific Ocean and was not recovered, but pieces of debris contaminated by plutonium were found around the island.

source: http://www.aerospaceweb.org/question/weapons/q0268.shtml

In addition, in pre-1960's nuclear mishaps with 'Broken Arrows':

13 July 1950: A B-50 Superfortress from Biggs AFB in Texas was on a training flight when the bomber pitched nose down and crashed near Lebanon, Ohio. All sixteen crew were killed. The conventional high explosives of an onboard atomic weapon detonated on impact, but the plane carried no nuclear capsule.

10 November 1950: A B-50 Superfortress was ferrying a Mk 4 atomic weapon from Canada to a base in the United States when it suffered engine trouble. Fearing they could not make an emergency landing while carrying the heavy weapon, the crew jettisoned the bomb over the St. Lawrence River off the shore of Quebec. The weapon was set to self-destruct and detonated in mid-air. A plutonium core was not installed but the explosion scattered some 100 lb (45 kg) of depleted uranium across the river below.

4 November 1958: While taking off from Dyess AFB in Texas, a B-47 bomber of the US Air Force caught fire. The three crew ejected, although one was killed, and the plane crashed while carrying one atomic weapon. The conventional explosives were set off by the crash creating a large crater, but all nuclear components were recovered.

26 November 1958: A B-47 Stratojet caught fire while on the ground at Chennault AFB in Louisiana. The conflagration destroyed an onboard weapon releasing some radioactive contamination in the immediate vicinity of the wreckage.

18 January 1959: An American F-100 Super Sabre was on the ground conducting a practice alert at an unidentified base in the Pacific. The aircraft was carrying three external fuel tanks and a nuclear weapon without a nuclear capsule. As the starter button was depressed, the external fuel tanks were accidentally jettisoned causing an explosion. The fire was put out quickly and no contamination was detected.

6 July 1959: While taking off from Barksdale AFB in Louisiana, a C-124 transport carrying one nuclear weapon crashed. The resulting fire destroyed the weapon but safety devices prevented any nuclear or conventional explosions. A small amount of radioactive contamination was found directly beneath the weapon.

25 September 1959: A P-5M Marlin patrol aircraft of the US Navy was conducting a mission off Whidbey Island, Washington, while carrying one unarmed nuclear depth charge without its fissile core. The aircraft crashed into Puget Sound and the weapon was never recovered.

12 October 1959: An American B-52 Stratofortress had rendezvoused with a KC-135 Stratotanker near Hardinsberg, Kentucky. As the B-52 was being refueled, the two planes collided. The B-52 carried two unarmed nuclear weapons that were recovered intact with little or no damage.

Comment by Tony Nuspl on October 12, 2013 at 6:41pm

And yet another Broken Arrow incident, the event featured in the interview about the book Command and Control:

On September 18, 1980, at about 6:30 p.m., an airman conducting maintenance on a USAF Titan-II missile at Little Rock Air Force Base's Launch Complex 374-7 in Southside (Van Buren County), just north of Damascus, Arkansas, dropped a socket from a socket wrench, which fell about 80 feet (24 m) before hitting and piercing the skin on the rocket's first-stage fuel tank, causing it to leak. At about 3:00 a.m., on September 19, 1980, the hypergolic fuel exploded. The W53 warhead landed about 100 feet (30 m) from the launch complex's entry gate; its safety features operated correctly and prevented any loss of radioactive material. The launch complex was destroyed.

And then there is the mystery file:

On 10 March 1956 over the Mediterranean Sea a Boeing B-47 Stratojet took off from MacDill Air Force Base, Florida, in the United States for a non-stop flight to Ben Guerir Air Base, Morocco and completed the first aerial refueling without incident. After descending through solid cloud to begin the second refueling, at 14,000 ft (4,267 m), B-47E serial number 52-534 failed to make contact with its tanker.

Despite an extensive search, no debris were ever found, and the crash site has never been located. The unarmed aircraft was carrying two capsules of nuclear weapons material in carrying cases; a nuclear detonation was not possible.


Comment by Tony Nuspl on October 12, 2013 at 6:37pm

Yet more Broken Arrow incidents:

On March 14, 1961 near  Yuba City a USAF B-52 bomber experienced a decompression event that required it to fly below 10,000 feet. Resulting increased fuel consumption led to fuel exhaustion; the aircraft crashed with two nuclear bombs, which did not trigger a nuclear explosion.

On January 13, 1964, between  Salisbury, Pennsylvania and Frostburg, Maryland, a USAF B-52 on airborne alert duty encountered a severe winter storm and extreme turbulence, ultimately disintegrating in mid-air over South Central Pennsylvania, leading to the accidental loss and recovery of thermonuclear bombs. A search for the missing weapons was initiated, and recovery was effected from portions of the wreckage at a farm northwest of Frostburg, MD.

On 8 December 1964 a USAF B-58 aircraft carrying a nuclear weapon caught fire while taxiing, at Bunker Hill Air Force Base, USA, leading to a nuclear weapon burning, causing contamination of the crash area.

On December 5, 1965 – coast of Japan – a U.S. Navy A-4E Skyhawk aircraft with one B43 nuclear bomb on board fell off the aircraft carrier Ticonderoga into 16,200 feet (4,900 m) of water while the ship was underway from Vietnam to Yokosuka, Japan.  Navy documents show it happened about 80 miles (130 km) from the Ryukyu Islands and 200 miles (320 km) from Okinawa.

On January 17, 1966 a USAF B-52 carrying four hydrogen bombs collided with a USAF KC-135 jet tanker during over-ocean in-flight refueling. The conventional explosives in two of the bombs detonated upon impact with the ground, dispersing plutonium over nearby farms. A third bomb landed intact near Palomares while the fourth fell 12 miles (19 km) off the coast into the Mediterranean sea. The US Navy conducted a three-month search involving 12,000 men and successfully recovered the fourth bomb.

On January 21, 1968 a fire broke out in the navigator's compartment of a USAF B-52 near Thule Air Base, Greenland. The bomber crashed 7 miles (11 km) from the air base, rupturing its nuclear payload of four hydrogen bombs.

On May 22, 1968, some 740 km (400 nmi) southwest of the Azores the USS Scorpion (SSN-589) sank while en route from Rota, Spain, to Naval Base Norfolk.  The wreckage of the ship, its S5W reactor, and its two Mark 45 torpedoes with W34 nuclear warheads, remain on the sea floor in more than 3,000 m (9,800 ft) of water.

Comment by Tony Nuspl on October 12, 2013 at 6:16pm

"Broken Arrow" incidents

On 13 February 1950, B-36 serial number 44-92075, crashed in an unpopulated region of British Columbia, Canada, resulting in the first loss of an American atom bomb. The bomb's plutonium core was dummy lead, but it did have TNT, and it detonated over the ocean before the crew bailed out.

On 22 May 1957, a B-36 accidentally dropped a Mark-17 hydrogen bomb on a deserted area while landing at Kirtland Air Force Base in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Only the conventional trigger detonated, the bomb being unarmed.

In late January 1958: a B-47 caught on fire and the plutonium in the nuclear weapon on board melted into the runway, at Sidi Slimane Air Base in Morocco

On February 5, 1958, near Savannah, Georgia, a nuclear bomb was lost. A USAF B-47 bomber jettisoned a Mark 15 Mod 0 nuclear bomb over the Atlantic Ocean after a midair collision with a USAF F-86 Sabre during a simulated combat mission from Homestead Air Force Base, Florida. The F-86's pilot ejected and parachuted  to safety. The USAF claimed the B-47 tried landing at Hunter Air Force Base,Georgia, three times before the bomb was jettisoned at 7,200 ft (2,200 m) near Tybee Island, Georgia.

On March 11, 1958, in Mars Bluff, South Carolina, a USAF B-47 bomber flying from Hunter Air Force Base in Savannah, Georgia accidentally released an atomic bomb, leading to the non-nuclear detonation of a nuclear bomb. A home was destroyed and several people injured but the bomb's plutonium core did not explode.

On June 7, 1960, in New Egypt, New Jersey, a nuclear warhead was damaged by fire. A helium tank exploded and ruptured the fuel tanks of a USAF BOMARC-A surface-to-air missile at McGuire Air Force Base, NJ. The fire destroyed the missile, and contaminated the area directly below and adjacent to the missile.

On January 24, 1961, a USAF B-52 bomber caught fire and exploded in midair due to a major leak in a wing fuel cell 12 miles north of Seymour Johnson Air Force Base, North Carolina, leading to the physical destruction of a nuclear bomb, and loss of nuclear materials. The incident released the bomber's two Mark 39 hydrogen bombs.




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