The Palomares Incident
Date: Tuesday, January 22 @ 21:39:46 MST
Today marks the 42nd anniversary of the Palomares Incident. A mid-air collision that caused the loss of four US hydrogen bombs in one of the most high-profile accidents involving American nuclear weapons outside the U.S. |Read More|
The Cold War was at its height and U.S. nuclear deterrence at the time hinged about an operation codenamed Chrome Dome. In practice, this meant that day and night, a fleet of B-52 bombers armed with nuclear weapons, were prowling the borders of the Soviet Union ready to deliver Armageddon to the heart of the enemy.
Critics of Chrome Dome had long pointed out the dangers involved in this and, in particular, the potential for an accident involving nuclear weapons. Events were taking place in the sky 10 kilometers over Spain that would trigger the most expensive search in history and change US defence policy forever.
At 08:17 UTC January 17 1966, a SAC B-52G and a KC-135 tanker from a Spanish airbase at Moron collided during a routine high altitude air refueling operation over Palomares, about 394km south of Madrid.
The fueling boom penetrated the bomber's fuselage just aft of the wing trailing edge, in effect breaking the aircraft’s back. Both aircraft exploded and crashed, spreading about 250 tons of wreckage over a wide area. All four tanker crewmen died in the fireball, but four of the seven B-52 crewmembers managed to eject successfully.
The B-52 was was carrying four unarmed MK-28FI thermonuclear weapons, each with a yield of 1.1 MT. The bombs were torn violently from the plane four to five seconds after the bomber began to disintegrate and fell to earth.
The first bomb landed relatively intact, still attached to its release rack mechanism, having been slowed by a small five meter diameter ribbon chute. The weapon secondary remained intact, as did the tritium gas reservoir which was found about eight meters from the crater. The casings of this and one other surviving bomb are on display at the National Atomic Museum, in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
Bombs number two and three fell unretarded 3.2km farther inland, where the conventional high explosive portion of the weapons exploded on impact releasing uranium, plutonium and plutonium oxide. Approximately 1,750 tons of contaminated soil and vegetation from two square kilometers were removed. Uncontaminated aircraft wreckage was either returned to the U.S. or dumped into the Atlantic Ocean.
The fourth and final bomb's retardation parachutes deployed and was blown by strong winds a further 13km until it fell into the Mediterranean. Popularly known since then as "Paco el de la bomba", local shrimp fisherman Francisco Simó Orts witnessed the bomb entering the water. Startled to see a parachute falling near his boat trailing what he later described as “…a dead man.”, he raced towards the spot but the object was already sliding down towards the dark bed of the Mediterranean 777 meters (425 fathoms) below.
In an attempt to defuse alarm of contamination, the Spanish minister for information and tourism Manuel Fraga and the US ambassador Angie P. Duke swam on a nearby beach in front of the press off the coast of Palomares to prove the safety of its waters.
The search for the fourth bomb was carried out by means of a novel mathematical method called Bayesian search theory, led by Dr John Craven. This method assigns probabilities to individual map grid squares, then updates these as the search progresses. Initial probability input is required for the grid squares, this input was provided by Signo Orts.
The bomb was initially discovered by the 13 ton Naval Research DSV Alvin, but was unsuccessfull in it's efforts to recover it. It was eventually salvaged intact eighty days later from a depth of 869 meters by a recovery vehicle called CURV, developed to retrieve torpedoes. After CURV became entangled in the bomb's billowing parachute, Admiral Guest gave the order to raise the whole mess to the surface by reeling in it's tether.
The exterior of the bomb was in good shape, except for two gashes at the bottom of the tail ballistic section and a severely dented nose section. Water had infiltrated all portions of the weapon. The recovered weapon was then displayed for the press to verify its recovery, the first time that a U.S. hydrogen weapon had been shown publicly.
In addition to being expensive and embarrasing for the US, the incident had far reaching political ramifications. The Spanish government later stated that NATO aircraft would no longer be permitted to fly over Spanish territory either to or from Gibraltar.
For his efforts, the fisherman Simó Orts later appeared in New York City with his lawyer claiming salvage rights on the recovered hydrogen bomb.
According to Dr John Craven:
"It is customary maritime law that the person who identifies the location of a ship to be salvaged has the right to a salvage award if that identification leads to a successful recovery. The amount is nominal, usually one or two percent, sometimes a bit more, of the intrinsic value to the owner of the thing salvaged. But the thing salvaged off Palomares was a hydrogen bomb, the same bomb valued by no less an authority than the Secretary of Defense at $2 billion — one percent of which is, of course, $20 million."
The Air Force later settled out of court.
1. ^The Palomares incident - Wikipedia.org
2. ^The Swords of Armageddon by Chuck Hanson
Aboard U.S.S. Petrel off the coast of Spain after successful recovery
of the H-Bomb, with CURV in the background.