On This Day In 1957: The Biggest Bomber, The Big

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

(Photo: Tom Demerly/TheAviationist)

Inside the box is a 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 AFB

Following yesterday’s news that the United States has withdrawn from the Open Skies Treaty surveillance flights that verify compliance with nuclear arms limitation treaties, it is worth revisiting a terrifying incident that took place is produced 63 years ago today: the former Kirtland AFB Accidental B -36 Hydrogen bomb release on May 22, 1957

The Mk 17 hydrogen bomb was an attempt to dramatically increase the destructive power of a nuclear weapon

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

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

It is difficult to make a meaningful comparison of its destructive force to the nuclear bomb dropped on Hiroshima, but a reasonable estimate is that the Mk 17 is more than 1,000 times more powerful than “Little Man”, the nuclear bomb of Hiroshima

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

1148 hours Local, Wednesday, May 22, 1957; Downwind traffic leg, runway 26, Kirtland AFB

Heran, aircraft commander of B-36 J Peacemaker number 52-2816, straightened his command yoke after completing the wide and graceful turn to the downwind leg of the final approach on Runway 26 at Kirtland AFB in outside of Albuquerque, New Mexico

The goliath, majestic bomber, the largest ever made, rushes towards the end of the runway in what looks like a slow motion

At the rear of the cavernous B-36J, two men guard the safety of a giant Mk 17 hydrogen bomb

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

One of the two men has unzipped his flight jacket as the temperature warms inside the bomber as the altitude decreases

One minute later: 11:49 am Local, Wednesday, May 22, 1957; Downwind traffic leg, runway 26, Kirtland AFB

Bourdon towards the end of the runway, now descending to 1700 feet

At the rear of the B-36J, an accidentally exposed control cable attached to the Mk 17’s transport cradle release lever momentarily snags the zipper pull of one of the member’s flight jackets crew as they confirm the removal of a manual safety locking pin in preparation for landing

Eleven seconds later: 1150 hours Local, Wednesday, May 22, 1957; Downwind traffic leg, runway 26, Kirtland AFB

A sudden gust of wind fills the B-36J’s cavernous bomb bay as the plane suddenly wobbles upward, as if unladen with a massive load

The clang of a loose bomb cradle is barely audible above the deafening blast of wind

Daylight streams into the previously dark expanse of the plane’s fuselage

The giant bomb bay is suddenly empty, the bomb bay doors have cracked and are flapping in the wind blowing outside the plane

The weapon’s suspension chain swings back and forth, now freed from its 20-ton burden

The Mk 17 hydrogen bomb, the largest in the American arsenal, has disappeared

He accidentally fell from the plane, opening the bomb bay doors and disappearing into space

In the same way that seemingly insignificant actions can turn into unimaginable calamity, either the bomb co-spotter’s zipper pull accidentally lodged on an 8-inch-long section of the manual release cable (also accidentally) exposed, or one of the two observers accidentally put their body weight on the control cable

The cable, just then cocked to release the weapon, let go

The gigantic 20-ton hydrogen bomb fell from the plane

A 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 Air Force Museum)

(Photo: National Air Force Museum)

Thirty seconds later: 11:51 am Local, Wednesday, May 22, 1957; Emergency go-around, downwind taxi leg, runway 26, Kirtland AFB

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

Jackson, speaking to The Associated Press when the crash was finally declassified in August 1986, went on to say, “It was routine procedure at the time “

If not, the accident could have ended differently enough to alter human history

The bomb still packed a mighty conventional punch

When it touched down 45 miles south of the Kirtland AFB control tower and just three-tenths of a mile outside the Sandia Atomic Base Reserve where the weapon was, ironically, delivered to be permanently disarmed, it’s 300 pounds of conventional explosives meant to set off the nuclear detonation, he dug a hole 12 feet deep and 25 feet in diameter

He threw bomb fragments a mile away

It also scattered low-level nuclear material throughout the site of the explosion

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

Today, the incident is chronicled in the book “Broken Arrow: The Declassified 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 caught on outside of aviation history buffs and a small group of Cold War veterans, but it remains one of the most fears of the uncontrolled nuclear arms race

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

Demerly studied journalism at Henry Ford College in Dearborn, Michigan

Tom Demerly served in an intelligence collection unit as a member of the United States Army and Michigan National Guard

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