Nuclear Accidents / Incidents
August 5, 1950
A B-29 bomber carrying a nuclear weapon without its fissile core crashed
and burned near a trailer park occupied by 200 families. The crew experienced
difficulty with the aircraft's propellers and with retracting its landing gear
immediately after takeoff from Fairfield-Suisun Air Force Base (now Travis Air
Force Base), eventually crashing while attempting an emergency landing.
Suisun Air Force Base, Fairfield, California
The bomber was carrying 10-12 500 lb. conventional explosive bombs, which
detonated 15 minutes after the crash. The ensuing blast was felt as far as
30 miles away and created a crater 20 yards across and six feet deep. The
crash and subsequent detonation killed eighteen personnel, including Air
Force General Travis, and injured 60 others.
May 22, 1957
A nuclear weapon without its fissile core fell from the bomb bay of a B-36
at an altitude of 1,700 feet and exploded upon impact. The bomber was
transporting both the weapon and its fissile core, which had been removed
for safety, from Biggs Air Force Base in Texas to Kirtland Air Force Base
in New Mexico. Although parachutes attached to the weapon were deployed during
its descent, they did not function properly.
Kirtland Air Force Base, New Mexico
The nuclear weapon was completely destroyed in the detonation which occurred
approximately 4.5 miles south of the Kirtland control tower and 0.3 miles west
of the Sandia Base reservation, creating a blast crater approximately 25 feet
in diameter and 12 feet deep. Fragments of the bomb and debris were scattered
over a one mile area. A radiological survey of the area was conducted, but
revealed no radioactive contamination beyond the lip of the crater.
January 31, 1958
A B-47 bomber with one nuclear weapon in strike configuration was making a
simulated takeoff during an exercise when the left rear wheel casting failed,
causing the tail to strike the runway and rupturing the fuel tank. The aircraft
caught fire and burned for seven hours. Although the weapon's high explosives
did not detonate, there was some contamination in the area immediately surrounding
the crash. Following the accident, exercise alerts were temporarily suspended.
Unidentified Overseas Base
The crash may have taken place at a U.S. airbase in Sidi Slimane, French Morocco.
An earlier Air Force document reported that "contamination of the wreckage was high,
but that of the surrounding area was low." A June 8, 1960, New York Times report
mentions a nuclear weapon accident having occurred "at a United States field near
Tripoli, Libya," but provides no further details.
A B-47 bomber experiencing engine trouble during takeoff jettisoned two full 1,700
gallon fuel tanks from an altitude of 8,000 feet, which missed a designated safe
impact area and exploded 65 feet behind a parked B-47 loaded with nuclear weapons.
The resulting fire burned for 16 hours and caused the high explosives package of at
least one weapon to explode. The explosion released radioactive material, including
powdered uranium and plutonium oxides, at least 10 to 20 grams of which were found
off base. An adjacent hangar was also severely damaged, and other planes nearby had
to be hosed down to prevent their ignition by the intense heat fueled by the jet
propellant and magnesium in the B-47. The fire killed two people, injured eight
others, and destroyed the bomber.
Greenham Common Airbase, England
The Air Force has never officially admitted that nuclear weapons were involved in
this accident. The Air Force and British Ministry of Defence agreed in 1956 to deny
the existence of nuclear weapons in any accident involving U.S. nuclear weapons
stationed in England. In 1985, the British government reported that the accident
involved a parked B-47 that was struck by a taxiing B-47 on a training exercise,
omitting any mention of the ensuing fire.
November 26, 1958
A B-47 bomber caught fire on the ground, destroying the single nuclear weapon
onboard. Contamination was limited to the immediate vicinity of the aircraft wreckage.
Chennault Air Force Base, Lake Charles, Louisiana
July 6, 1959
A C-124 aircraft transporting a nuclear weapon without its fissile core crashed
during takeoff, completely destroying the aircraft and nuclear weapon. There was
a limited amount of contamination immediately below the destroyed weapon, but not
enough to hamper rescue or firefighting operations.
Barksdale Air Force Base, Bossier City, Louisiana
June 7, 1960
A BOMARC* air defense missile being stored in a ready state that permitted its
launch in two minutes was destroyed after a high pressure helium tank exploded
and ruptured the missile's fuel tanks. Although the warhead was also destroyed
by the fire, the safety devices acted properly and prevented the weapon's high
explosives from detonating. A New York Times article described a near nuclear
disaster, noting that the missile "melted under an intense blaze fed by its
100-pound detonator TNT...The atomic warhead apparently dropped into the molten
mass that was left of the missile, which burned for forty-five minutes." The
ensuing radiation "had been caused when thoriated magnesium metal which forms
part of the weapon, caught fire." The Pentagon report said that only the area
immediately beneath the weapon and an adjacent elongated area approximately
100 feet long were contaminated by water runoff from fighting the fire.
McGuire Air Force Base, near Trenton, New Jersey
* Boeing and Michigan Aeronautical Research Center.
November 13, 1963
While three employees were dismantling the high explosive (HE) components
of a nuclear bomb, they began burning spontaneously, triggering a large
blast involving 120 pounds of HE. The explosion caused little contamination.
Atomic Energy Commission Storage Igloo, Medina Base, San Antonio, Texas
December 8, 1964
A B-58 bomber lost control and slid off a runway during taxi, causing
portions of the five nuclear weapons onboard to burn in an ensuing fire.
There were no detonations and contamination was limited to the immediate
area of the crash.
Bunker Hill (now Grissom) Air Force Base, Peru, Indiana
October 11, 1965
A C-124 transport aircraft containing nuclear weapons components and a dummy
training unit caught fire while being refueled. The fire started at the aft
end of the refueling trailer and destroyed the aircraft's fuselage. There were
no casualties and the resultant radiation hazard was minimal.
Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, near Dayton, Ohio
January 17, 1966
A B-52 bomber carrying four hydrogen bombs collided in midair with a KC-135
tanker near Palomares, Spain. Of the four H-bombs aboard, two weapons' high
explosive material exploded on ground impact, releasing radioactive materials,
including plutonium, over the fields of Palomares. Approximately 1,400 tons of
slightly contaminated soil and vegetation were later taken to the United States
for storage at an approved site. A third nuclear weapon fell to earth but
remained relatively intact; the last one fell into the ocean.
The weapon that sank in the Mediterranean set off one of the largest search
and recovery operations in history. The search took about eighty days and
employed 3,000 Navy personnel and 33 Navy vessels, not including ships,
planes, and people used to move equipment to the site. Although the midget
sub "Alvin" located the bomb after two weeks, it was not recovered until
April 7. Wreckage from the accident fell across approximately 100 square
miles of land and water.
The accident occurred during a routine high altitude air refueling operation
as the B-52 was returning to Seymour Johnson Air Force Base in Goldsboro,
North Carolina, after flying the southern route of the Strategic Air Command
air alert mission code named "Chrome Dome." The bomber was attempting its
third refueling with a KC-135 tanker from the American base at Moron, when
the nozzle of the tanker's boom struck the bomber. The boom ripped open the
B-52 along its spine, snapping the bomber into pieces. The KC-135's 40,000
gallons of jet fuel ignited, killing seven crewmen.
January 21, 1968
Four nuclear bombs were destroyed in a fire after the B-52 bomber carrying
them crashed approximately seven miles southwest of the runway at Thule Air
Force Base in Greenland. The B-52, from Plattsburgh Air Force Base in New
York, crashed after a fire broke out in the navigator's compartment. The
pilot was en route to Thule AFB to attempt an emergency landing. Upon impact
with the ground, the plane burst into flames, igniting the high explosive
outer coverings of at least one of the bombs. The explosive then detonated,
scattering plutonium and other radioactive materials over an area about 300
yards on either side of the plane's path, much of it in "cigarette box-sized"
The bomber had been flying the Arctic Circle route as part of the Strategic
Air Command's continuous airborne alert operation, code-name "Chrome Dome."
One crew member was killed in the crash.
The government of Denmark, which owns Greenland and prohibits nuclear weapons
on or over its territory, issued a strong protest following large demonstrations
in that country. A few days after the crash, U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert
McNamara ordered the removal of nuclear weapons from airborne alert. The alerts
themselves were later curtailed and then suspended altogether.
September 19, 1980
Fuel vapors from a Titan II intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) exploded
in the missile's silo, blowing off the 740-ton silo door of reinforced concrete
and steel and catapulting the missile's nuclear warhead 600 feet. The accident
occurred when an Air Force repairman dropped a heavy wrench socket that struck
the missile, causing a leak in the missile's pressurized fuel tank. The fuel
caught fire and exploded approximately 8 1/2 hours later, killing one person and
injuring twenty-one others. The missile's reentry vehicle, which contained a
nuclear warhead, was recovered intact.
March 10, 1956
A B-47 bomber carrying two nuclear weapon cores in their carrying cases disappeared
over the Mediterranean Sea. The aircraft, on a nonstop flight from MacDill Air Force
Base in Tampa, Florida, to an undisclosed overseas airbase, was lost with its crew.
After takeoff the B-47 was scheduled for two in-flight-refuelings before reaching
its final destination. The first refueling was successfully completed, but the
aircraft never made contact with the second refueling tanker over the Mediterranean
Sea. Despite an extensive search, no trace of the aircraft, the nuclear weapon cores,
or crew, were ever found.
July 28, 1957
A C-124 transport aircraft that was having mechanical problems jettisoned two nuclear
weapons without their fissile cores off the east coast of the United States. The C-124
was en route from Dover Air Force Base in Delaware when it lost power to its number one
and two engines. The crew determined that level flight could not be maintained with the
weight of the weapons onboard and decided to jettison the cargo. Although neither weapon
detonated, both are presumed to have been damaged from impact with the ocean surface
and to have sunk almost instantly. Neither the weapons nor debris were ever found.
The C-124 safely landed at an airfield near Atlantic City, New Jersey, with the remaining
weapon and nuclear warhead aboard.
February 5, 1958
A nuclear weapon without a fissile core was lost following a mid-air collision. A B-47
bomber carrying a nuclear weapon without its fissile core collided with a F-86 aircraft
near Savannah, Georgia. Following three unsuccessful attempts to land the plane at
Hunter Air Force Base in Georgia, the weapon was jettisoned to avoid the risk of a
high explosive detonation at the base. The weapon was jettisoned into the water several
miles from the mouth of Savannah River in Wassaw Sound off Tybee Beach, but the precise
point of impact is unknown. The weapon's high explosives did not detonate on impact. A
subsequent search covering three square miles used divers and sonar devices, but failed
to find the weapon. The search was ended on April 16, 1958, and the weapon was
considered to be irretrievably lost.
Savannah River, Georgia
Some accounts of nuclear weapon accidents list a February 12, 1958, accident involving
a B-47 near Savannah, Georgia. "The best estimate" of the weapon's location, an earlier
DoD narrative noted, "was determined to be 31 degrees 54' 15" North, 80 degrees 54' 45"
West." The B-47 was on a simulated combat mission from Florida's Homestead Air Force Base.
September 25, 1959
A U.S. Navy P-5M aircraft carrying an unarmed nuclear depth charge without its fissile
core crashed into Puget Sound near Whidbey Island, Washington.
The weapon was never recovered.
Whidbey Island, Washington
January 24, 1961
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."
Goldsboro, North Carolina
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.
December 5, 1965
An A-4E Skyhawk strike aircraft carrying a nuclear weapon rolled off an elevator
on the U.S. aircraft carrier Ticonderoga and fell into the sea. Because the bomb
was lost at a depth of approximately 16,000 feet, Pentagon officials feared that
intense water pressure could have caused the B-43 hydrogen bomb to explode. It is
still unknown whether an explosion did occur. The pilot, aircraft, and weapon were lost.
USS Ticonderoga (CVA-14)
The Pentagon claimed that the bomb was lost "500 miles away from land." However,
it was later revealed that the aircraft and nuclear weapon sank only miles from
the Japanese island chain of Ryukyu. Several factors contributed to the Pentagon's
secretiveness. The USS Ticonderoga was returning from a mission off North Vietnam;
confirming that the carrier had nuclear weapons aboard would document their
introduction into the Vietnam War. Furthermore, Japan's anti-nuclear law prohibited
the introduction of atomic weapons into its territory, and U.S. military bases in
Japan are not exempt from this law. Thus, confirming that the USS Ticonderoga
carried nuclear weapons would signify U.S. violation of its military agreements
with Japan. The carrier was headed to Yokosuka, Japan, and disclosure of the
accident in the mid-1980s caused a strain in U.S.-Japanese relations.
Although the Pentagon has not publicly released details of the accident,
it probably refers to the nuclear powered attack submarine USS Scorpion
that was lost at sea. The sub, carrying unidentified nuclear weapons, was
last heard from on May 21, 1968, while returning to Norfolk, Virginia,
after a three month training exercise in the Mediterranean Sea. The USS
Scorpion sank 400-500 miles southwest of the Azores.
USS Scorpion (SSN-589)
Details were kept secret to prevent the Soviet Union or anyone else from
knowing the location of the submarine's nuclear weapon, which was
apparently not recovered.
The U.S. initially suspected that the Soviet Union was somehow involved.
The suspicions were allayed when the research ship Mizar (T-AK-272)
photographed the wreckage lying on the sea floor at 10,000 feet. A Navy
court of inquiry found "no evidence of any kind to suggest foul play or
sabotage," and found that the "certain cause of the loss of the Scorpion
cannot be ascertained from evidence now available."
October 5, 1960
An early-warning system radar malfunction falsely warned the North American
Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) headquarters of a "massive" Soviet ballistic
missile strike approaching the United States. A fault in the computer system
had removed two zeros from the radar's ranging components, causing the radar
to detect what it believed was a possible missile attack at 2,500 miles. The
radar was actually detecting a reflection from the moon, located 250,000 miles away.
October 25, 1962
An alarm bell indicating that a nuclear war with the Soviet Union was
beginning went off accidentally during the height of the Cuban missile
crisis. Pilots ran to their nuclear-armed aircraft and were ready to
take off when the mistake was detected by an officer in the command post.
The pilots were ordered to return.
Volk Field Base, Wisconsin
June 3 and 6, 1980
An alarm indicating a massive Soviet missile attack was registered by a
communications computer connected to NORAD. A threat assessment conference
was called, and 100 nuclear-armed B-52s were put on alert for imminent takeoff.
Although the mistake was detected, the same computer produced an identical
warning three days later on June 6, 1980. A threat assessment conference was
again called and 100 nuclear-armed B-52s were put on alert for takeoff. The
problem was later traced to the failure of an integrated circuit in a computer,
which was producing random digits representing the number of missiles detected.
January 10, 1984
Warren Air Force Base in Cheyenne, Wyoming, recorded a message that one of
its Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missiles was about to launch
from its silo due to a computer malfunction. To prevent the possible launch,
an armored car was parked on top of the silo.
Warren AFB, Cheyenne, Wyoming
April 11, 1950
A B-29 bomber carrying a nuclear weapon, four spare detonators, and a
crew of thirteen crashed into a mountain near Manzano Base in Albuquerque,
New Mexico. The crash occurred within three minutes of departure from the
Kirtland Air Force Base in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and resulted in a major
fire which was reported by the New York Times as being visible from
"fifteen miles." The bomb's casing was completely demolished and its
high explosives ignited upon contact with the plane's burning fuel.
However, according to the DoD, the four spare detonators and all nuclear
components were recovered. A nuclear detonation was not possible because
the weapon's core, while being carried on-board, was not placed in the
weapon for safety reasons. All thirteen crew members were killed.
Manzano Base, Albuquerque, New Mexico
July 13, 1950
A B-50 bomber carrying a nuclear weapon without its fissile core crashed
while on a training mission from Biggs Air Force Base near El Paso, Texas.
Mechanical difficulties caused the bomber to nosedive from a height of 7,000
feet and crash. The weapon's high explosives detonated upon impact, causing
an explosion felt well over 25 miles away and creating a crater 25 feet
deep and 200 feet square. Four officers and twelve airmen were killed in
July 27, 1956
A B-47 bomber crashed into a storage igloo containing three MK-6 nuclear
weapons while on a routine training mission at the Lakenheath Royal Air Force
Station, 20 miles northeast of Cambridge, England. Although the bombs involved
in the accident did not have their fissile cores installed, each of them
carried about 8,000 pounds of high explosives as part of their trigger mechanism.
The crash and ensuing fire did not ignite the high explosives and no detonation
occurred. A retired Air Force general who was in England said later that if the
weapons' high explosives had detonated, releasing radioactive material, "it is
possible that a part of Eastern England would have become a desert." Another Air
Force officer present at the scene said that it was only through "a combination
of tremendous heroism, good fortune and the will of God" that a horrific nuclear
weapons accident was avoided. The damaged weapons and components were later
returned to the Atomic Energy Commission. The B-47 involved in the accident,
which killed four crewmen, was part of the 307th Bombardment Wing.
Lakenheath Royal Air Force Station, England
November 4, 1958
A B-47 bomber carrying a nuclear weapon caught fire during takeoff and crashed
from an altitude of 1,500 feet, killing one crew member. The resulting detonation
of high explosives created a crater 35 feet in diameter and six feet deep. Nuclear
materials from the weapon were recovered near the crash site.
Dyess Air Force Base, Abilene, Texas
October 15, 1959
A B-52 bomber carrying two atomic bombs collided at 32,000 feet with a
KC-135 refueling aircraft shortly after initiating refueling procedures
near Hardinsberg, Kentucky. The ensuing crash killed 8 crew members and
partially burned one of the weapons. No nuclear material was released,
however, and the unarmed weapons were recovered intact. Both planes had
departed from Columbus Air Force Base in Mississippi.
January 19, 1961
A B-52 bomber carrying one or more nuclear weapons was reported to have exploded
in midair about 10 miles north of Monticello, Utah. The bomber had left Biggs AFB
near El Paso, Texas, bound for Bismarck, North Dakota, on a routine "round-robin"
training mission. Near Monticello the aircraft began climbing from 36,000 to 40,000
feet and soon experienced a violent bump followed by a descending right roll of
about 410 degrees, a short period of wings-level, nose-down flight, and then a
violent spin. The aircraft descended rapidly and at an elevation of 7,000 feet
broke into several pieces that landed within an area two miles wide by 11 1/2
miles long. Observers on the ground said the plane's left-wing engine caught fire,
after which there was a midair explosion. Five crewmen were killed in the accident.
February 13, 1950
An American B-36 bomber (44-92075) was forced to jettison a weapon which exploded on
impact. The bomber, carrying one weapon containing a dummy warhead, was
flying a simulated combat mission from Eilson Air Force Base, near Fairbanks,
Alaska, to Carswell Air Force Base in Fort Worth, Texas. After six hours of
flight the bomber experienced mechanical problems and was forced to shut down
three of its engines at an altitude of 12,000 feet. Fearing that severe weather
and icing would jeopardize a safe emergency landing, the weapon was jettisoned
over the Pacific Ocean from a height of 8,000 feet. The weapon's high explosives
exploded upon impact. All sixteen crew members and one passenger were able to
parachute to safety and were subsequently rescued from Princess Royal Island.
British Columbia Coast
The Pentagon's summary report does not mention if the weapon was later recovered.
November 10, 1950
A B-50 bomber was forced to jettison a nuclear weapon containing high explosives
(HE) but no nuclear material, causing the HE to detonate on impact. The bomb
exploded near the middle of the 12 mile wide St. Lawrence River, rattling the
windows of houses across a 25 mile area.
St. Lawrence River, St. Alexandre-de-Kamouraska, Canada
The accident occurred not long after takeoff when the aircraft lost power in two
of its engines during a training flight as it was returning from Labrador, Canada,
to its home base at Davis-Monthan AFB in Tucson, Arizona. Although the Pentagon's
1980 summary of nuclear accidents did not specifically mention the accident's
location other than to say they were "over water, outside the United States,"
news reports and eyewitness accounts identified the location as being over the
St. Lawrence River near St. Alexandre-de-Kamouraska, Canada. The DoD documents
do not mention whether the weapon was recovered.
October 11, 1957
A B-47 bomber carrying a nuclear weapon and its separated fissile core crashed
shortly after takeoff. The aircraft crashed in an inhabited area approximately
3,800 feet from the end of the runway, enveloping the nuclear weapon and its fissile
core in flames which burned and smoldered for approximately four hours. Although two
small explosions occurred during the burning, the weapon core and its carrying case
were recovered intact and only slightly damaged by the heat. Approximately one-half
of the weapon remained and all its major components were recovered but damaged.
Homestead Air Force Base, Homestead, Florida
March 11, 1958
A B-47E accidentally jettisoned an unarmed nuclear weapon without its fissile
core at 15,000 feet, which impacted in a sparsely populated area 6-1/2 miles
east of Florence, South Carolina. The bomb's high explosive material exploded
on impact, causing property damage and several injuries. The aircraft, which was
heading to an undisclosed overseas base, returned to Hunter Air Force Base in
Georgia without further incident.
Florence, South Carolina
Numerous accounts of the accident describe the bomb falling in the garden of
Mr. Walter Gregg in Mars Bluff, South Carolina. The high explosive detonation
virtually destroyed his house, creating a crater 50-70 feet in diameter and
25-30 feet deep. It caused minor injuries to Mr. Gregg and five members of his
family, and damaged five other houses as well as a church. Following the accident,
Air Force crews were ordered to "lock in" their nuclear bombs, which reduced the
possibility of accidental drops but increased the danger during a plane crash.
January 9, 1956
An incident involving a B-36 bomber carrying one or more nuclear weapons occurred on
January 9, 1956, at Kirtland AFB in New Mexico, according to a February 1991 report
by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The report, however, provides no
further details on the type of weapon involved or of any damage to the weapons onboard.
Kirtland Air Force Base, New Mexico
January 4, 1958
An eastbound Nickel Plate railroad freight train derailed. Five cars carrying "AEC
classified material" were involved in the accident. According to the report there
was no damage to the material and no injury to AEC personnel escorting the shipment.
Hamburg, New York
An unidentified aircraft crashed "on base" while carrying a MK-7 training weapon
in February, 1958. Aircraft wreckage and weapons parts were scattered over an area
approximately 250 feet wide by 0.25 miles long. The largest piece of weapon
recovered was located with part of the plane's tail section.
Aircraft Unknown, Location Unknown
January 18, 1959
A grounded F-100 interceptor carrying a nuclear weapon without its fissile core burst
into flames when its external fuel tanks were inadvertently jettisoned during a practice
alert. The plane was carrying a payload of one nuclear weapon and three external fuel
tanks. The fire was doused in about seven minutes and there were no contamination or
Unspecified Pacific Base
August 18, 1959
A severe fire aboard the aircraft carrier USS Wasp threatened to engulf the nuclear
weapons storage space and required flooding of the forward ammunition stores. Foam was
pumped through the flight deck, and the crew prepared to flood the nuclear weapons
storage spaces. The fire was brought under control before that command was given.
USS Wasp (CVS-18)
January 16, 1961
A nuclear bomber on round-the-clock alert crashed on takeoff causing spilled fuel
to erupt into flames which engulfed the aircraft at an undisclosed USAF base in
Britain. A nuclear weapon mounted on the aircraft's centerline pylon was badly damaged
before the fire could be put out. According to secret correspondence to the Chairman
of the U.S. Joint Commission on Atomic Energy (JCAE), the accident was so serious
that the weapon was "scorched and blistered." The U.S. Government has never
acknowledged the accident and it is not included on the DoD's list of broken arrows.
Undisclosed U.S. Air Force Base, Britain
March 14, 1961
A B-52 bomber carrying two nuclear weapons crashed, tearing the weapons from the
aircraft on impact. The weapons' high explosive did not detonate and their safety
devices worked properly. The aircraft had departed from Mather Air Force Base near
Sacramento and was forced to descend to 10,000 feet after the crew compartment
pressurization system failed. Flying at the lower altitude increased the plane's
fuel consumption, causing it to run out of fuel prior to its scheduled rendezvous with a tanker.
Yuba City, California
November 4, 1961
A trailer truck caught fire while carrying a small amount of radioactive material.
There was no contamination resulting from the fire.
June 4, 1962
A nuclear test device atop a Thor rocket booster fell into the Pacific Ocean near
Johnston Atoll after the booster malfunctioned and was destroyed minutes after liftoff.
The test was the United States' first attempt at conducting a high-altitude atmospheric
Pacific Ocean Near Johnston Atoll
June 20, 1962
A second attempt to detonate a nuclear device in the high atmosphere failed when a Thor
booster malfunctioned over Johnston Atoll. The nuclear device fell into the Pacific Ocean.
Thor Rocket, Pacific Island
December 2, 1962
A Louisville and Nashville train derailed while carrying nuclear weapons components.
The material was not damaged, but three couriers were injured.
January 13, 1964
A B-52D bomber carrying two nuclear weapons crashed approximately 17 miles southwest of
Cumberland, Maryland. The nuclear weapons were being transported in a tactical ferry
configuration, meaning that no mechanical or electrical connections had been made from
the bombs to the aircraft. The bomber was en route from Westover Air Force Base in Chicopee
Falls, Massachusetts, to its home base at Turner Air Force Base in Albany, Georgia, when
it encountered violent turbulence. During an altitude change from 29,500 to 33,000 feet,
the aircraft encountered more violent air turbulence and suffered structural failure. Both
weapons were recovered relatively intact.
December 5, 1964
A retrorocket located below an LGM 30B Minuteman I missile's Reentry Vehicle (RV) fired
while two repairmen were working nearby, sending the reentry vehicle crashing down to the
bottom of its silo. The arming and fusing/altitude control subsystem containing the RV's
batteries were torn loose on impact, removing all sources of power from the RV and causing
it considerable damage. The missile's safety devices operated properly and did not allow
the warhead to become armed. The Minuteman I was on strategic alert.
Ellsworth Air Force Base, Rapid City, South Dakota
January 19, 1966
A W-45 nuclear warhead separated from a Trier surface-to-air missile and fell 8 feet while
it was being loading on the frigate USS Luce. The warhead was dented but otherwise unharmed.
The incident was first documented in the "Chronology of Nuclear Accident Statements"
released by the Department of Defense in 1968.
USS Luce (DLG-7)
February 22, 1970
A nuclear warhead from a Pershing ballistic missile fell to the pavement during maintenance
procedures. The launch pad was evacuated and the area sealed off. The warhead, however, did
Boetingen, West Germany
The incident occurred when a crewman, working alone in violation of regulations that require
at least two persons to be present around nuclear weapons, accidentally removed an explosive
bolt and its detonating cable, causing the warhead to fall. The fall broke off approximately
a one-half inch piece of the missile's nosecone and also put a two inch gouge in the nosecone
and badly scratched the warhead's ablative material. The incident was originally reported as
a "Broken Arrow," but was later downgraded to a "Bent Spear" incident.
November 10, 1970
A fire broke out in the stern of the U.S. Navy submarine tender USS Canopus which was carrying
several nuclear-armed missiles. The tender was at the Holy Loch submarine base in Scotland
moored alongside two American nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines. It took four
hours to bring the fire under control.
USS Canopus (AS-34)
February 14, 1974
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.
Plattsburgh AFB, New York
October 23, 1975
A canister containing a nuclear weapon's fissile core fell 40 feet to the bottom
of a shaft during preparations for an underground nuclear test at the Nevada Test
Site. The warhead had a yield of less than 20 kilotons. Although the warhead did
not detonate and there was no leakage of radioactive material, 11 Nevada Test Site
workers were injured. The device was to be detonated as part of a series of underground
tests code-named "Peninsula."
Yucca Flats, Nevada
The incident was verified by U.S. Energy Research and Development Administration
(ERDA) spokesman, David Miller. According to the ERDA, safety mechanisms built
into the warhead precluded the possibility that the device could have accidentally detonated.
November 22, 1975
During night exercises the aircraft carrier USS John F. Kennedy and the
cruiser USS Belknap collided, lodging the Belknap's superstructure beneath
the Kennedy's overhanging flight deck. The carrier's fuel lines were ruptured,
spreading gasoline over the deck of the Belknap, which ignited and burned for
more than two hours.
USS Belknap (DLG-26) & USS John F. Kennedy (CVA-67)
Although this accident is one of the best-known and well-documented nuclear
weapons accidents, the presence of nuclear weapons onboard the Belknap and the
Kennedy have never been publicly acknowledged by the Navy or Pentagon. However,
documents show that minutes after the incident occurred,
the commander of Carrier Striking Forces for the Sixth Fleet sent a secret
nuclear weapons accident message (a "Broken Arrow") to the Pentagon, warning
of the "high probability that nuclear weapons aboard the Belknap were involved
in fire and explosion." The story has been corroborated by a retired admiral
who was aboard the Belknap at the time of the accident.
One of the ships that came to the Belknap's aid was the nuclear-capable frigate USS Bordelon, which collided with the USS John F. Kennedy a year later 75 miles north of Scotland. That ship's anti-submarine rocket (ASROC) container, where nuclear weapons would normally be held, was nearly crushed.
April 16, 1976
The Cruiser USS Albany experienced a nuclear weapons incident -- known as a "Dull Sword" -- when a TALOS surface-to-surface missile's nuclear warhead was damaged.
USS Albany (CG-10)
November 28, 1977
An army CH-47 carrying nuclear warheads on a logistical move crashed shortly after takeoff when a fire caused the helicopter to lose power to an engine. The fire was extinguished and the weapons were safely removed to a storage site.
September 15, 1980
A B-52H bomber carrying nuclear-armed AGM-69 short range attack missiles caught fire while on the ground during an alert exercise. A strong wind and firefighters managed to keep the intense flames away from the missiles. The fire was caused by a fuel leak and burned intensely, fed by fuel from the Number Three main wing tank. The fire burned for more than three hours and was extinguished only after the fuel flow had ceased.
Grand Forks AFB, North Dakota
Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory Director Roger Batzel later testified that if "the wind was blowing down the axis of the airplane, the whole aircraft (including its load of nuclear-armed missiles) would have been engulfed in flames."
April 9, 1981
The nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarine USS George Washington collided with a Japanese freighter in the East China Sea, causing slight damage to the submarine's sail and sinking the freighter. The submarine carried up to 160 nuclear warheads on its 16 Poseidon C-3 sea-launched ballistic missiles.
USS George Washington (SSBN-598)
March 12, 1984
The aircraft carrier USS Kitty Hawk collided with a Victor-class Soviet nuclear-powered attack submarine in the Sea of Japan. At the time of the collision, the USS Kitty Hawk was carrying up to several dozen nuclear weapons, and the Soviet submarine probably carried two nuclear torpedoes.
USS Kitty Hawk (CV-63)
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