1966: 4 Nuclear Bombs Each 70 Times the Destructive Power of the Hiroshima Bomb Were Dropped Over Spain

1966: 4 Nuclear Bombs Each 70 Times the Destructive Power of the Hiroshima Bomb Were Dropped Over Spain

Stephanie Schoppert - January 8, 2017

On January 17th, 1966 a B-52G bomber set off from North Carolina on a Cold War airborne mission that was code-named Operation Chrome Dome. The plan was for the plane to make it all the way from North Carolina to the European borders of the Soviet Union and back without stopping. This meant that the bomber had to do two mid-air refuelings over Spain.

Operation Chrome Dome was a continuous operation from 1960 until 1968 in which B-52 bombers remained armed with thermonuclear weapons and on continuous alert. The planes were constantly flying routes that led them to various points along the border of the Soviet Union. There were at any given time at least a dozen bombers flying routes to and from the Soviet Union to ensure first strike or retaliation capabilities for the U.S.

The operation was supposed to be one way to keep Americans safe during the Cold War but throughout the course of the 8-year operation, there were 6 accidents and each time the planes were carrying nuclear weapons.

At around 10:20 in the morning on January 17th the B-52 bomber commanded by Captain Charles Wendorf was flying over Spain on the return home from flying along the Soviet-Turkish border. The plane was preparing to refuel and was meeting up with a KC-135 tanker.

As the B-52 tried to maneuver under the tanker and connect the boom, it became obvious that the B-52 was coming in too fast. Relief pilot Major Larry Messinger stated that he was never told by the tanker that he needed to break away. So despite coming in too fast, he did not realize there was any danger to the situation.

1966: 4 Nuclear Bombs Each 70 Times the Destructive Power of the Hiroshima Bomb Were Dropped Over Spain

The b-52 struck the KC-135, causing the refueling boom to hit the fuselage. The hit broke a longeron and snapped off the left wing of the B-52. Both planes were covered in fuel which led to an explosion that was seen by another B-52 over a mile away.

The entire crew of the KC-135 perished in the explosion and three of the seven men aboard the B-52 also died as a result of the collision. Five of the seven crew members were able to eject from the plane but the parachute of one of them never deployed. The four surviving men were found and taken to hospital in Aguilas.

The loss of seven men was only the beginning of this deadly mid-air collision. The bigger concern quickly became the 4 nuclear bombs that each had 70 times the destructive power of the Hiroshima bomb and had been on the B-52 and were now falling to the ground over Spain. Read on to find out what happened next.

1966: 4 Nuclear Bombs Each 70 Times the Destructive Power of the Hiroshima Bomb Were Dropped Over Spain
Airmen search for the missing bomb. https://history.com/

The United States Air Force with help from the RAF out of Oxford, England immediately started the search for the missing bombs. The wreckage from the aircraft was found in the fishing village of Palomares in the Almeria province of Andalucia, Spain. Within 24 hours two of the nuclear bombs had been found and they had exploded on impact.

Luckily only the conventional explosives on the nuclear bombs had detonated sparring the lives of the villagers. However, the explosion did cause radioactive material to spread around the area. The third bomb was found intact in a riverbed.

The fourth was nowhere to be found. Airmen scoured the beach and nearby villages with Geiger counters, looking for any trace of the bomb, desperate to find it before it detonated or was discovered by the wrong people.

The only clue found to the bomb’s location was the discovery of the bomb’s parachute tail fin. This led the investigators to believe that the parachute had deployed and the wind pushed the bomb out to sea.

This was collaborated by the eyewitness account of a local fisherman named Francisco Simo Orts (later known as “Bomb Paco” or Bomb Frankie”). He said that he had seen the bomb entering the water. Orts was then hired by the Air Force to assist with tracking down the missing nuclear bomb.

Once it was clear that the bomb was somewhere in the ocean, the Air Force contacted the Navy for help. More than 2 dozen ships and submarines were set to the task of covering a large search area using Bayesian search theory to cover the areas where the bomb was most likely to be.

The missing bomb quickly became world news as the Soviets began a propaganda campaign stating that the bomb was going to contaminate the oceans. In response, U.S. Ambassador Angier Biddle Duke went swimming in the waters at Palomares beach in order to show that there was no danger of a radioactive sea (which said nothing for the land that was covered in radioactive dust from the other two bombs).

1966: 4 Nuclear Bombs Each 70 Times the Destructive Power of the Hiroshima Bomb Were Dropped Over Spain

The bomb was found on March 26 and the Navy attached a cable to bring it up from the ocean floor. However, the cable snapped and the bomb was lost again until April 2nd. Finally, on April 7th it was recovered. The next day reporters were allowed to photograph the bomb as proof that it had been recovered. This marks the first time in history that the United States had displayed one of its nuclear weapons to the public.

1966: 4 Nuclear Bombs Each 70 Times the Destructive Power of the Hiroshima Bomb Were Dropped Over Spain
Barrels of soil waiting to be removed from Palomares. dailymail.co.uk

During this time, there was a massive cleanup of the soil and vegetation that was contaminated by the two exploded bombs. 1,400 tons of contaminated material was removed from the area. A medical monitoring system was established for the locals in which the United States and Spain funded annual health checkups until 2010 when the United States stopped paying as the agreement had expired.

Negotiations for funding for cleanup resumed in 2015 when research found that there was still contamination in the area. Both countries sought a binding agreement for a renewed cleanup operation.