On This Day In 1957: The World’s Largest

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 dropped 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

In the wake of yesterday’s news that the United States has withdrawn from the Open Skies Treaty, which confirms compliance with the Treaty on the Limitation of Nuclear Weapons, it is worth recalling a horrific event that took place 63 years ago today: the former classified Kirtland AFB Accidental B -36 Hydrogen bomb dropped on 22 May 1957

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

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

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

It is difficult to make meaningful comparisons of its destructive power to the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima, but a fair estimate is that the Mk 17 is more than 1,000 times more powerful than “Little Man”, the Hiroshima atomic bomb

Trying to visualize the destructive power of the Mk 17 is beyond comprehension

1148 hours Local, Wednesday 22 May 1957; Traffic leg with wind, runway 26, Kirtland AFB

Heran, pilot-in-command of B-36 J Peacemaker number 52-2816, straightened his controls after completing the wide, graceful turn to the wind flap of final approach on Runway 26 at Kirtland AFB outside Albuquerque, New Mexico

Goliath, the majestic bomber, the largest ever made, spins toward the end of the runway in what looks like slow motion

In the back of the cavernous B-36J, two men provide security for a huge Mk 17 hydrogen bomb

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 warms inside the bomber with decreasing altitude

One minute later: 1149 hours Local, Wednesday 22 May 1957; Traffic leg with wind, runway 26, Kirtland AFB

Drifting towards the end of the runway, now descending about 1700 feet

in the rear of the B-36J, an accident-prone control cable attached to the Mk 17 carrier cradle release rod momentarily caught on a zipper on one crewman’s flight jacket as he confirmed that the manual safety lock pin had been removed preparation for landing

Eleven seconds later: 1150 hours Local, Wednesday 22 May 1957; Traffic leg with wind, runway 26, Kirtland AFB

A sudden gust of wind fills the B-36J’s bomb bay as the aircraft suddenly surges upward, as if released from a heavy payload

The sound of a loose bomb cradle is barely audible above the dull gust of wind

Daylight blows into the previously dark area of ​​the fuselage

The huge bomb bay is suddenly empty, the bomb bay doors burst apart and flapped 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

It has accidentally fallen out of the plane, ripped open the bomb bay doors and disappeared into space

In a way that seemingly insignificant actions can lead to unimaginable disaster, either the bomb hobbyist’s zipper accidentally caught on an 8-inch long piece of (also accidentally) exposed manual release cable, or one of the two observers’ sets accidentally caught on body weight on the control cable

The cord, just at that moment armed to release the weapon, let go

A huge 20-ton hydrogen bomb fell from the plane

A Mk17 hydrogen bomb, the largest ever dropped 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: 1151 hours Local, Wednesday 22 May 1957; Emergency taxiing, downwind traffic leg, Runway 26, Kirtland AFB

According to Dave Jackson, a spokesman for the US Department of Energy in Albuquerque, New Mexico, “a portion of the actual weapon had been removed and repositioned”

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

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

The bomb still packed a lot of traditional ground

When it hit the ground 45 miles south of the Kirtland AFB control tower and just three-tenths of a mile outside the Sandia nuclear facility site where the weapon was, ironically, delivered to be permanently disarmed, it’s 300 pounds of conventional explosives were intended to set off the nuclear explosion blasted a hole 12 feet deep and 25 feet in diameter

It threw shrapnel miles away

It also spread low-level nuclear material throughout the blast site

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

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

Oskins (Lulucom, January, 2008) and in several articles that appeared after the incident was finally lifted

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

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

Demerly studied journalism at Henry Ford College in Dearborn, Michigan

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

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