On This Day In 1957: Biggest Bomber, Biggest H

A Convair B-36 Peacemaker on display at the Pima Air & Space Museum outside Tucson, Arizona

(Photo: Tom Demerly/TheAviationist)

A boxed Mk17 hydrogen bomb, the largest ever deployed by the United States, on display at the National Museum of the Air Force in Dayton, Ohio

The day a B-36 accidentally dropped America’s largest hydrogen bomb on Kirtland Air Force Base

Following yesterday’s news that the US has withdrawn from the Open Skies Treaty on surveillance flights that verify compliance with nuclear arms limitation treaties, it’s worth revisiting a horrific incident that happened 63 years ago today: the former secret Kirtland attack AFB Accidental B -36 Hydrogen bomb dropped on May 22, 1957

The Mk 17 hydrogen bomb was an attempt to drastically increase the destructive power of nuclear weapons

In technical terms, according to Pulitzer Prize finalist and investigative journalist Eric Schlosser in his book “Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Disaster, and the Illusion of Security” (p

161,), the Mk 17 was the largest operational hydrogen bomb ever used by the United States

It is difficult to make a meaningful comparison of its destructive power compared to the nuclear bomb dropped on Hiroshima, but it is a reasonable estimate that the Mk 17 is more than 1000 times more powerful than “Little Man”, the Hiroshima nuclear bomb

Trying to imagine the destructive power of the Mk 17 is beyond normal comprehension

1148 hours Local, Wednesday, 22 May 1957; Downstream Traffic Section, Runway 26, Kirtland AFB

Heran, the commander of B-36 J Peacemaker No 52-2816, straightened his control yoke after completing a wide, graceful turn into the windward portion of final approach on Runway 26 at Kirtland AFB outside Albuquerque, New Mexico

The Goliath, a majestic bomber, the largest ever built, spins toward the end of the runway in what appears to be slow motion

In the back of the cavernous B-36J, two men keep the giant Mk 17 hydrogen bomb safe

As with most protocols related to handling nuclear weapons, two people must be present at all times

One of the two men has unzipped his flight jacket as the temperature inside the bomber warms as it descends

One minute later: 1149 hours Local, Wednesday, 22 May 1957; Downstream Traffic Section, Runway 26, Kirtland AFB

Humming towards the end of the runway, now descending past 1700ft

in the rear of a B-36J, an accidentally exposed control cable attached to a Mk 17 carrier cradle release lever is momentarily caught in the zipper of one of a crewman’s flight jackets as the crewman confirms the removal of the manual safety pin in preparation for landing

Eleven seconds later: 1150 hours Local, Wednesday, 22 May 1957; Downstream Traffic Section, Runway 26, Kirtland AFB

A sudden gust of wind fills the B-36J’s cavernous bomb bay as the plane suddenly tilts upward as if unburdened by a massive load

The jingle of a loose bomb is barely audible over the deafening howl of the wind

Daylight penetrates the previously dark expanse of the fuselage

The huge bomb bay is suddenly empty, the bomb bay door cracked and flapping in the gust of wind outside the plane

The weapon suspension chain swings back and forth, now free of its 20-ton load

The Mk 17 hydrogen bomb, the largest in the US arsenal, is gone

She accidentally fell out of the plane, ripped open the bomb bay door and disappeared into space

In a way that seemingly trivial actions can turn into unimaginable disaster, either a co-bomb spotter snags a zipper on an 8-inch-long section of (also accidentally) exposed manual release cable, or one of the two spotters accidentally places their body weight on control cable

Cable, armed just at that moment to release the weapon, drops

A giant 20-ton hydrogen bomb fell from the plane

The Mk17 hydrogen bomb, the largest ever deployed by the United States, on display at the National Museum of the Air Force in Dayton, Ohio

(Photo: National Aviation Museum)

(Photo: National Aviation Museum)

Thirty seconds later: 1151 hours Local, Wednesday, 22 May 1957; Emergency move, down traffic leg, Runway 26, Kirtland AFB

According to Dave Jackson, a spokesman for the US Department of Energy in Albuquerque, New Mexico, “some of the actual weapon [was] removed and placed in another location”

Speaking to The Associated Press when the crash was finally declassified in August 1986, Jackson said, “At the time, it was routine “

Had it not been, the accident could have ended differently enough to change human history

Even so, the bomb still had a powerful conventional punch

When it hit the ground 45 miles south of Kirtland AFB’s control tower and just three-tenths of a mile outside the Sandia Nuclear Base Reservation, where the weapon, ironically, had been delivered to be permanently disarmed, it took 300 pounds of conventional explosives to set off nuclear detonation, made a hole 12 feet deep and 25 feet in diameter

Fragments of the bomb were thrown a mile away

It also scattered low-level nuclear material around the blast site

It wasn’t until nearly three decades later that information about the crash finally surfaced in the media after a Freedom of Information Act investigation by a reporter for the Associated Press and Journal in August 1986

Today, the incident is described in the book “Broken Arrow: The Uncovered History of US Nuclear Weapons Accidents” by Michael H

Oskins (Lulucom, January 2008) and in several articles published after the incident was finally declassified

But for some reason, the story never gained traction outside of aviation history buffs and a small group of Cold War veterans, but it remains one of the most terrifying reminders of the uncontrolled nuclear arms race

instagramTom Demerly is an author, journalist, photographer and editor who has written articles published worldwide at TheAviationistcom, TACAIRNETcom, Outside magazine, Business Insider, We Are The Mighty, The Dearborn Press & Guide, National Interest , Russian government media Sputnik and many other publications

Demerly studied journalism at Henry Ford College in Dearborn, Michigan

Tom Demerly served in an intelligence gathering unit as a member of the US Army and the Michigan National Guard

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