Despite the accumulation of vast arsenals of unimaginable destructive might, the world has never experienced the apocalyptic power of a nuclear weapon, deliberately or otherwise, since 1945. However there have been countless occasions in which humanity came impossibly close to unintentionally experiencing the devastation of these “destroyers of worlds” – whether through carelessness, accident, malfunction, or thoughtlessness.
Here are 20 instances in which nuclear weapons were crashed, dropped, lost, or detonated that almost resulted in monumental disaster:
1. A U.S. Air Force B-36 bomber dropped a nuclear bomb into the Pacific Ocean
The first officially acknowledged nuclear weapons accident occurred on February 13, 1950, as a United States Air Force B-36 bomber traveled from Eielson Air Force Base, Alaska, to Carswell Air Base, Texas. En route the plane suffered mechanical failures after six hours of flight, crippling three of the bomber’s six engines at an altitude of 12,000 feet. Unable to maintain altitude and facing severe weather and icy conditions, making a conventional emergency landing impossibly dangerous, the crew deviated from their established flight plan to head out over the Pacific Ocean and preemptively jettisoned their cargo: a nuclear bomb containing large quantities of TNT and enriched uranium, but crucially lacking the necessary plutonium to create a nuclear explosion.
Dropped from a height of 8,000 feet the bomb detonated upon impact in the Pacific Ocean, with the explosion described as a “visible bright flash”. All sixteen crew and passengers subsequently parachuted to safety and were successfully rescued, with the bomber crashing at an unknown location in Canada. Despite significant search efforts, including the identification of the bomber’s crash site four years later and false reports in 2016 of underwater discovery by a diver near Pitt Island, the remains of the nuclear bomb have never been either located or recovered.
2. In 1950 a nuclear bomb crashed into a mountain in New Mexico
On April 11, 1950, just three minutes after take-off from Kirtland Air Force Base in Albuquerque, New Mexico, for reasons unknown a USAF B-29 bomber carrying a nuclear weapon crashed into a nearby mountain. The crash of the B-29 resulted in an enormous fire, described by The New York Times as being visible from 15 miles away, and caused the deaths of all thirteen crew members aboard.
However although the bomb’s casing was completely destroyed in the crash, causing the explosives contained to ignite and explode from contact with the plane’s burning gasoline, as per Department of Defense safety regulations the nuclear weapon’s core was stored separately from the bomb itself preventing nuclear detonation. After a comprehensive clean-up operation lasting several months and involving hundreds of personnel, all four spare detonators and all nuclear materials and components were safely recovered from the wreckage.
3. A U.S. Air Force nuclear bomber nose-dived during a training exercise over Ohio
On July 13, 1950, a USAF B-50 bomber from Biggs Air Force Base, Texas, flew over Lebanon, Ohio, during a routine training mission. Despite clear weather conditions, at 7,000 feet the bomber suddenly nosed down and flew directly into the ground. The bomber was carrying a nuclear weapon containing large amounts of high-explosives, but did not contain a fissile core. The resultant explosion was recorded as creating a crater 25 feet deep and 200 square feet in area, as well as being felt over 25 miles away by civilians.
No specific reason was identified for this sudden disaster, with attributions typically speculating catastrophic mechanical or engineering malfunctions as the most likely causes. Four officers and twelve airmen were killed in the incident, including all those aboard the crashed bomber.
4. A Californian trailer park was nearly destroyed by a crashing bomber
On August 5, 1950, a USAF B-29 bomber traveling from Fairfield-Suisun Air Force Base, California, to Guam suffered critical malfunctions with two of the propellers soon after launch. The bomber was carrying a Mark 4 nuclear bomb, albeit absent the plutonium core which was being transported on a separate plane. Having retracted the landing gear during take-off the bomber returned to Fairfield-Suisun and unsuccessfully attempted an emergency landing, crashing in the effort near a trailer park occupied by 200 families.
The wreckage subsequently caught fire and although rescue and air base personnel fought the blaze for between twelve to fifteen minutes, they were ultimately ineffective as the bomber’s 10,000-12,500 lbs of conventional explosives detonated on the ground. The resultant blast was felt as far away as 30 miles from the crash site, and created a crater measuring 20 yards across and 6 feet deep. The explosion also killed 19 people, including Brigadier General Robert F. Travis, the bomber’s command pilot in whose honor the Air Base was renamed in 1951. Additionally, the crash and resultant explosion injured around 60 others.
5. An American bomber covertly stationed in Canada dropped and detonated a nuclear bomb over Quebec
On November 10, 1950, a USAF B-50 bomber suffered critical engine malfunctions during a training flight as it returned from Labrador, Canada, to its home base at Davis-Montham Air Force Base in Tuscon, Arizona. Secretly deployed in Canada, the aircraft lost power in two of its engines soon after take-off. Fearing a devastating outcome in the event of a crash, the bomber’s crew armed their payload: a nuclear weapon containing high explosives and nuclear material but no plutonium core. Setting the bomb to self-destruct at 2,500 feet the crew jettisoned the nuclear device at 10,500 feet while over the 12 mile wide St. Lawrence River, near St. Alexandre-de-Kamouraska, Quebec, Canada.
Whilst the incident resulted in zero known casualties, with the B-50 successfully continuing its flight to a safe destination and the bomb detonating at the chosen altitude, the aerial explosion shook and terrified local Canadian residents, reportedly rattling the windows of houses across a 25 mile area. Additionally, the detonation scattered nearly 100lbs of uranium used in the weapon over the river and local area. The Department of Defense has never confirmed the successful recovery of the weapon or its components from the river.
6. Two nuclear weapons cores vanished over the Mediterranean Sea
On March 10, 1956, a USAF B-47 Stratojet embarked on a classified mission from MacDill Air Force Base, Florida, to an unspecified overseas base. It’s objective was the safe and secure couriering of two nuclear weapons cores for an unknown purpose. In order to minimize risk to the cargo or crew from either landing malfunctions or potential hijacking the mission was non-stop, and accordingly flying thousands of miles without landing necessitated multiple mid-air refueling rendezvouses. The first of these meetings occurred without any noteworthy concerns, with the aircraft successfully detaching from the tanker and continuing along its given trajectory.
The second refueling location was over the Mediterranean Sea, and required the aircraft to decrease its altitude to 14,000 feet. On March 10 there was an especially solid cloud formation over the Mediterranean, the base of which formed at 14,500 feet and into which the B-47 descended. After making this descent into the clouds the B-47 and its crew were never heard from again, failing to rendezvous with the second refueling plane or transmit any further communications. Despite a considerable search effort by multiple nations, no trace of the aircraft, the crew, or the nuclear weapons cores have ever been found, and it is unknown whether the cores reside at the bottom of the Mediterranean Sea or elsewhere.
7. A U.S. Air Force bomber crashed into three nuclear bombs in England
On July 27, 1956, a USAF B-47 bomber on a routine training mission crashed into a storage igloo containing three MK-6 nuclear weapons at Lakenheath Royal Air Force Station in Suffolk, United Kingdom. The crash at RAF Lakenheath killed four crewman aboard the aircraft, severely damaged the stored nuclear bombs, each of which carried approximately 8,000 pounds of high explosives, and dispensed burning fuel over the three MK-6 devices. Despite the crashing, damage to and exposure of the detonators, and the resultant fire, the weapons did not explode and the damaged bombs were successfully salvaged.
The official report from the incident cited the preliminary bomb disposal examination which concluded that it was “a miracle that one mark six with exposed detonators sheared didn’t go”, releasing substantial radioactive material into the surrounding region. As one retired Air Force general later described “it is possible that a part of Eastern England would have become a desert”, whilst an Air Force officer present at the event subsequently commented that only “a combination of tremendous heroism, good fortune and the will of God” averted a horrific accident of unimaginable consequence.
8. A thermonuclear bomb was accidentally dropped by the U.S. Air Force on New Mexico
On May 22, 1957, a USAF B-36 aircraft was transporting a MK-17 thermonuclear bomb from Biggs Air Force Base, Texas, to Kirtland Air Force Base, New Mexico. At 11:50am, as the B-36 approached Kirtland AFB at an altitude of 1,700 feet, the weapon slipped from its secured moorings and destroyed the bomb bay doors. Despite being equipped with a parachute designed to slow its descent, the low altitude of the aircraft combined with a malfunctioned parachute failed to impede the bombs momentum. Furthermore the bomb had had its release-mechanism locking pin removed – as was standard procedure during take-off and landing to allow for quick jettisoning – and exploded on impact approximately 4.5 miles south of the Kirtland control tower and 0.3 miles west of Sandia Base.
Having been previously separated from the fissile core for transit per safety regulations, the resulting explosion was limited to only creating a crater 12 feet deep and 25 feet in diameter. Fragments and component debris was scattered as far away as one mile from the impact point, and radioactive contamination was detected at the crater lip amounting to 0.5 milliroentgen requiring a careful clean-up operation overseen by the Field Command Armed Forces Special Weapons Project.
9. The U.S. Air Force jettisoned two nuclear bombs into the Atlantic Ocean
On July 28, 1957, a USAF C-124 aircraft was transporting three nuclear bombs from Dover Air Force Base, Delaware across the Atlantic Ocean when it experienced a sudden loss of power to both the number one and number two engines. Although maximum power was diverted to the remaining engines, the aircraft remained too heavy to maintain level flight. As a result the decision was taken in the interest of crew safety to lighten the craft and jettison two of the three bombs into Atlantic Ocean.
With their cores removed the first device was ejected at approximately 4,500 feet in altitude, whilst the second followed at about 2,500 feet. It is believed neither weapon detonated, and both are presumed to have been damaged from impact and sunk instantly. Neither the weapons themselves, nor any debris, have ever been recovered, whilst the C-124 returned safely to an airfield near Atlantic City, New Jersey, with the remaining nuclear weapon.
10. A nuclear bomb was dropped in the Savannah River during a simulated combat mission collision
During a simulated combat mission from Homestead Air Force Base on February 5, 1958, a USAF B-47 bomber carrying a MK-15 nuclear weapon without its fissile core collided at 3:30 am with a F-86 fighter plane. While the F-86’s pilot ejected and parachuted to safety, due to the nature of the cargo carried by the B-47 it was instead redirected to Hunter Air Force Base, Georgia, for an emergency landing. However due to the condition of the bomber post-collision the aircraft was unable to sufficiently reduce its airspeed to ensure a safe landing, and after three aborted attempts to land was ordered to jettison the bomb rather than risk a high explosive detonation at Hunter AFB.
The bomb was ejected at 7,200 feet at an aircraft speed of 180-190 knots near Tybee Island, Georgia, several miles from the mouth of the Savannah River in Wassaw Sound. No detonation was recorded upon impact. However the precise impact point remains unknown, with the Department of Defense noting “the best estimate…was determined to be 31 degrees 54′ 15″ North, 80 degrees 54′, 54″ West”, and an extensive nine week search conducted by divers and underwater demolition technicians across a 3 square-mile area using galvanic drags and sonar devices failing to recover the weapon, which was subsequently classified as irretrievably lost.
11. A B-47 accidentally dropped a nuclear bomb on South Carolina
On March 11, 1958, a USAF B-47E bomber was flying as part of a squadron of four from Hunter Air Force Base, Georgia, to an unspecified location in England on a classified mission code-named Operation Snow Flurry designed to simulate a mock bombing scenario. Whilst over South Carolina, at 3:53pm and an altitude of 15,000 feet, the flight navigator/bombardier conducted a safety check on a MK-6 nuclear bomb’s locking harness and inadvertently pushed the emergency release lever. The weapon crashed through the bomb bay doors and entered free fall.
The bomb landed approximately 6.5 miles east of Florence, South Carolina, in Mars Bluff, and detonated upon impact. Without it’s fissile core, removed for safety reasons, the bomb’s 7,600lbs of high explosives resulted in a crater 70 feet wide and 30 feet deep. Landing in the garden of Mr. Walter Gregg, the explosion damaged several local properties, including the town’s church, and injured Mr. Gregg and five members of his family in addition to other residents. Following the incident Air Force crews were ordered to “lock in” nuclear bombs on all flights, increasing the potential dangers from a plane crash but reducing the possibility of future accidental drops.
12. A nuclear bomb exploded in a crash at an Air Force Base in Texas
On November 4, 1958, for unknown reasons, a USAF B-47 bomber caught fire soon after take-off and from an altitude of 1,500 feet crashed towards Dyess Air Force Base, Texas. On board the B-47 bomber was a single nuclear weapon containing both high explosives and radioactive materials. Three of the aircraft’s crew successfully ejected and landed unharmed at Dyess Air Base, however one airman did not and died in the crash; it is believed he deliberately remained in an attempt to steer the plane away from greater dangers and crash the plane as safely as possible.
Upon crashing the weapon exploded, with no casualties recorded except the remaining airman, and the resulting detonation of the nuclear device caused a crater 35 feet in diameter and six feet deep. No nuclear reaction was caused by the crash or explosion and all nuclear materials were successfully recovered from the crash site, with no lasting radioactivity affecting the area.
13. Two nuclear bombs crash landed in Kentucky in 1959
On October 15, 1959, two USAF B-52F Stratofortress bombers took off from Columbus Air Force Base, Mississippi at 14:00. As part of their mission both planes were to undergo mid-air refueling by a partner KC-135 aircraft. After successful rendezvous over Hardinsberg, Kentucky, at approximately 5:33pm the second B-52, carrying two nuclear weapons, and a KC-135 begun their refueling maneuvers. Despite clear weather and limited turbulence, shortly after beginning the refueling process the two aircraft collided at approximately 32,000 feet.
The instructor pilot, followed by the electronic warfare officer and radar navigator of the B-52 ejected, but did not survive their descents, whilst the tail gunner failed to eject in time. Concurrently all four crew members of KC-135 were killed prior to ejection. Despite the collision and crash, with one nuclear weapon being partially burned by these events, neither device detonated or exploded and were recovered intact from the crash site without dispersion of nuclear materials or contamination of the local area.
14. Two nuclear bombs fell on North Carolina in 1961, and one remains buried under a farm to this day
On January 24, 1961, a USAF B-52 bomber on airborne alert – part of the US nuclear deterrence strategy during the Cold War – suddenly caught fire due to a critical leak in a wing fuel cell. Causing structural failure in the aircraft, the bomber exploded and broke apart in mid-air 12 miles north of Seymour Johnson Air Force Base, North Carolina. Of the eight crewman aboard the B-52, five successfully ejected and parachuted to safety whilst two died in the effort and a further one succumbed to injuries upon landing. The resulting breakup of the aircraft released the bomber’s two Mark-39 hydrogen bombs from a height of between 2,000-10,000 feet, which subsequently plummeted towards the ground.
The first bomb activated and begun the steps necessary to arm itself for nuclear detonation, initiating three of the four arming devices including the charging of the firing capacitors. Crucially the 100 foot diameter custom-designed parachute activated successfully during free fall, allowing the nearly fully armed bomb to land safely with minimal damage and preventing detonation. The second bomb’s parachute however did not, and the device instead plunged into a muddy field at approximately 700 mph and disintegrated. Security analyst Daniel Ellsberg later determined the weapon could have accidentally fired because “five of the six safety devices had failed”, and nuclear physicist Ralph Lapp calculated “only a single switch” had “prevented the bomb from detonating and spreading fire and destruction over a wide area.”
The tail of the second bomb was later discovered almost 20 feet below the surface, and after evacuation of the nearby farmland and an extensive excavation some of the bomb’s radioactive materials including the plutonium and tritium bottle were recovered. However most of the thermonuclear stage of the bomb, including the enriched uranium core estimated to lie around 55 feet below ground, was never recovered. In order to prevent discovery or accidental disturbing, the Air Force fenced off the area and purchased an easement requiring permission to be obtained before any digging could occur on the land. The incident was sufficiently severe that President Kennedy was provided a full briefing on over 60 nuclear accidents that had occurred since the Second World War, and the U.S. and Soviet Union placed new safety devices on their nuclear arsenals.
15. A B-52 ran out of fuel and crashed with two nuclear weapons in California
On March 14, 1961, a USAF B-52 bomb based out of Mather Air Force Base near Sacramento, California, suffered a malfunction in the crew compartment pressurization system which triggered a decompression event. The depressurization of the bomber forced it to decrease its altitude to below 10,000 feet, and in so doing expended fuel at a faster rate than previously anticipated. Before rendezvous with a tanker aircraft could be arranged for refueling, the B-52 suffered fuel exhaustion and begun crashing.
At this point the crew bailed out at approximately 10,000 feet, except for the aircraft’s commander who elected to remain on the aircraft until 4,000 feet to steer the plane away from populated areas. The bomber crashed near Yuba City, California, with the force of the ground impact flinging the two nuclear weapons from the aircraft. However due to the aforementioned tightening of safety procedures and mechanisms after the “Goldsboro incident” months earlier, neither device either exploded or detonated and there was no nuclear contamination of the area.
16. Two nuclear bombs were (briefly) lost in a snowstorm in Maryland
On January 13, 1964, a USAF B-52D bomber on airborne alert duty en route from Westover Air Force Base near Chicopee Falls, Massachusetts to its home base of Turner Air Force Base in Albany, Georgia, encountered a harsh winter storm and extreme turbulence. Requesting permission to increase altitude to evade incoming dangerous turbulence at 29,500, the aircraft proceeded to climb to 33,00 feet. During this ascent the bomber encountered historic turbulence with such ferocity to cause structural failure in the military aircraft.
Of the five crew members aboard the B-52 only the pilot and co-pilot survived the crash, with the radar navigator failing to eject and dying upon impact whilst the gunner and navigator ejected but succumbed to exposure after successfully reaching the frozen ground. The aircraft crashed approximately 17 miles southwest of Cumberland, Maryland in an isolated mountainous and wooded area with wreckage scattered across a site roughly 100 square yards. As the bombs were in the tactical ferry configuration – meaning no mechanical or electrical connections had been made to the bomber, and the safing switches were in the “safe” position – neither bomb could detonate or explode. A subsequent recovery operation in the extreme weather was conducted, ultimately retrieving the intact devices from the aircraft’s wreckage which had been buried by over 14 inches of new snow.
17. A nuclear bomb fell off an aircraft carrier in the Pacific Ocean and a nuclear submarine sunk in the Atlantic Ocean
On December 5, 1965, a U.S. Navy A-4E Skyhawk aircraft with one B43 nuclear bomb rolled whilst on an elevator and fell off the U.S. aircraft carrier Ticonderoga approximately 80 miles from the Ryukyu Islands and 200 miles from Okinawa. The plane, pilot, or the weapon were never successfully recovered, and because the bomb was lost at a depth of roughly 16,000 feet Pentagon officials feared the water pressure might trigger the hydrogen bomb to detonate. In fact, it remains unknown whether the device did indeed explode or not.
Similarly on May 22, 1968, the American nuclear submarine USS Scorpion sank while en route from Rota, Spain, to Norfolk, Virginia after a three month training exercise in the Mediterranean Sea, killing all 99 officers and seamen on board. The wreckage of the submarine, including its S5W nuclear reactor and two MK-45 torpedoes with W34 nuclear warheads, remain on the sea floor buried by almost 10,000 feet of water. Originally feared to be an act of Soviet sabotage, suspicions were allayed when a research vessel successfully photographed the wreckage and a Navy Court of Inquiry found “no evidence of any kind to suggest foul play or sabotage”, instead concluding the “certain cause of the loss of the Scorpion cannot be ascertained from evidence now available.”
18. An American nuclear bomb exploded spreading plutonium over Spanish farms
On January 17, 1966, a USAF B-52 carrying four hydrogen bombs was returning to Seymour Johnson Air Force Base in Goldsboro, North Carolina, after participating the Strategic Air Command’s air alert mission code-named “Chrome Dome”. During the third mid-air refueling with a USAF KC-135 the nozzle of the jet tanker’s boom struck the bomber, ripping open the B-52 along its spine and snapping the bomber into several pieces. The 40,000 gallons of jet fuel carried by the KC-135 ignited, killing all four crew aboard the jet tanker and three airmen on the B-52; four members of the bomber’s crew successfully jettisoned and parachuted to safety.
Two of the hydrogen bombs’ conventional explosives detonated upon ground impact, spreading plutonium over nearby farms in Palomares, Spain, with total wreckage from the crash dispersing across over 100 square miles of land and water. During the resulting clean-up operation, 1,500 tonnes of radioactive soil and tomato plants were transported to a nuclear waste dump in Aiken, South Carolina. The United States Government also settled claims by 552 Palomares residents for $600,000, while the town of Palomares was also provided $200,000 to construct a desalinization plant.
The third bomb landed intact, also near Palomares, whilst the fourth landed 12 miles off the coast in the Mediterranean Sea. The latter resulted in the one of the largest search and recovery operations in history, dramatized in the motion picture “Men of Honor”. Taking approximately 80 days and involving 12,000 men, including 3,000 US Navy personnel, 33 Navy vessels, and countless aircraft, amphibious craft, and specialist equipment, the bomb was eventually successfully retrieved on April 7.
19. The U.S. accidentally crashed a nuclear weapon into anti-nuclear Greenland
On January 21, 1968, a B-52 from Plattsburgh Air Force Base, New York crashed due to a fire erupting in the navigator’s compartment during its landing approach approximately 7 miles southwest of Thule Air Force Base, Greenland. The crash killed one of the aircraft’s seven crewmen, and destroyed all of the four hydrogen bombs carried by the B-52. These explosions scattered plutonium and other radioactive materials across a 300 yard radius, with many pieces described as being as large as “cigarette box-sized”, causing significant contamination of the local area.
The recovery and decontamination operation was hindered by Greenland’s harsh winter weather, prolonging the operation to over four months in length, during the course of which approximately 237,000 cubic feet of contaminated ice, snow, water, and debris was removed and transported for burial at nuclear dumps in the United States. The incident caused widespread protests in Denmark, which forbade the placement of nuclear weapons on its territory. In an attempt to mollify international outrage, U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara subsequently ordered the removal of nuclear weapons from airborne alerts and “Operation Chrome Dome”, the aforementioned Strategic Air Command’s continuous airborne alert operation of which the bomber was participating in, was later suspended in its entirety due to the growing casualties stemming from the program.
20. A Soviet submarine accidentally fired a nuclear warhead in 1977
On November 22, 1977, the Soviet submarine K-171 accidentally released a nuclear warhead whilst off the coast of Kamchatka. The cause of the accident has never been determined or revealed, in part due to characteristic Soviet military secrecy, and the incident only became public knowledge after a newspaper report on the incident in Vladivostok in 1993. The jettisoned warhead became the subject of an expansive search and recovery operation involving dozens of Soviet ships and aircraft, which eventually located and retrieved the intact nuclear device.
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