A B-52 bomber mistakenly loaded with at least five nuclear warheads flew from Minot Air Force Base, N.D, to Barksdale Air Force Base, La., on Aug. 30, resulting in an Air Force-wide investigation, according to three officers who asked not to be identified because they were not authorized to discuss the incident.Having been a bomb-loader during my first enlistment in the USAF, I recall that, before the eighties, bombers used to routinely fly with live nuclear weapons. The reasons that the practice was stopped are self-evident.
The B-52 was loaded with Advanced Cruise Missiles, part of a Defense Department effort to decommission 400 of the ACMs. But the nuclear warheads should have been removed at Minot before being transported to Barksdale, the officers said. The missiles were mounted onto the pylons of the bomber's wings.
January 24, 1961, Goldsboro, North Carolina(Emphasis mine.)
In what nearly became a nuclear catastrophe, a B-52 bomber on airborne alert carrying two nuclear weapons broke apart in midair. The B-52 experienced structural failure in its right wing and the aircraft's resulting breakup released the two weapons from a height of 2,000-10,000 feet. One of the bomb's parachutes deployed properly and that weapon's damage was minimal. However, the second bomb's parachute malfunctioned and the weapon broke apart upon impact, scattering its components over a wide area. According to Daniel Ellsberg, the weapon could have accidentally fired because "five of the six safety devices had failed." Nuclear physicist Ralph E. Lapp supported this assertion, saying that "only a single switch" had "prevented the bomb from detonating and spreading fire and destruction over a wide area."
Despite an extensive search of the waterlogged farmland where the weapon was believed to have landed, the bomb's highly enriched uranium core was never recovered. In order to prevent any discovery of the lost portion of the weapon, the Air Force purchased an easement which required that permission be obtained before any construction or digging could begin in the area. Three crew members were killed in the crash.
The accident was apparently so serious that it was reported to newly-elected President John F. Kennedy. According to Newsweek, President Kennedy was informed after the accident that "there had been more than 60 accidents involving nuclear weapons" since World War II, "including two cases in which nuclear-tipped anti-aircraft missiles were actually launched by inadvertence." As a result of the Goldsboro accident, the U.S. placed many new safety devices on its nuclear arsenal and the Soviet Union was encouraged to do the same.
February 14, 1974, Plattsburgh AFB, New YorkThe last incident occurred some seven years before I was stationed at Plattsburgh.
The nose landing gear of a USAF FB-111 carrying two short range attack air-to-surface missiles and two nuclear bombs collapsed as the aircraft was commencing an engine run-up during an alert exercise. There was no damage to the weapons and they were unloaded without incident.
Admittedly, a long time has passed since I worked as a "load-toad" (I taught the Aircraft Armament Systems Apprentice course for a time), but I'm wondering how this accident could have taken place. As I recall live weapons and dummie weapons--those with all the fixins except for the warhead--were stored in separate facilities in order to prevent this sort of thing. Has that practice ceased? If not, the AF investigative authorities might want to give that load crew a good going over, along with the types responsible for storage management.
(Thanks to Memeorandum)
UPDATE: Bohica time, as it should be:
The Air Combat Command has ordered a command-wide stand down on Sept. 14 to review procedures, officials said. They said there was minimal risk to crews and the public because of safety features designed into the munitions.Jogging my memory further, Former Spook also wonders how this "accident" could have happened.
In addition to the munitions squadron commander who was relieved of his duties, crews involved with the mistaken load — including ground crew workers — have been temporarily decertified for handling munitions, one official said.
First, nuclear weapons are segregated from "ordinary" munitions, with additional layers of security and access control. All personnel involved in the protection, storage, handling and loading of the weapons are carefully vetted through the military's Personnel Reliability Program (PRP). Anyone whose loyalty, judgment or stability comes into question loses their PRP certification, and they're no longer allowed to work around nuclear weapons.Curiouser and curiouser.
Other safeguards are built into the system as well. There's a very tight chain of control; the device is literally "signed for" at every step of the journey from the weapons storage area to the aircraft, and the two-man "rule" is strictly enforced. An individual pilot or load crew member is never allowed to "control" the weapon on the ground.
[Re-edited; Typepad seems reluctant to save my changes.]