On this day in 2020: Biggest Bomber, Biggest H

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

(Photo: Tom Demerly/TheAviationist)

Inside the box is a Mk17 hydrogen bomb, the largest ever built in the US, 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In the wake of yesterday’s news that the US has withdrawn from the Treaty on Open Skies observation flights that verify compliance with nuclear arms limitation treaties, it’s worth remembering a horrifying incident that took place 63 years ago today: the previously classified Kirtland AFB Accidental B – 36 The fall of the hydrogen bomb on May 22, 1957

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

Technically speaking, according to Pulitzer Prize finalist and investigative journalist Eric Schlosser in his book “Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Crash, 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 a meaningful comparison of its destructive power compared to the nuclear bomb dropped on Hiroshima, but a reasonable estimate is 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 common understanding

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

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

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

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

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

One of the two men unbuttoned his flight jacket as the temperature inside the bomber warmed with decreasing altitude

A minute later: 1149 hours Local, Wednesday 22 May 1957; Downwind Section, Runway 26, Kirtland AFB

Humming towards the end of the runway, now dropping over 1700ft

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

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

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

The jingle of the bomb’s released cradle is barely audible over the deafening wind

Daylight penetrates the previously dark space of the plane’s fuselage

The giant bomb bay is suddenly empty, the bomb bay doors are broken open and shaken in the gusts of wind in front of the plane

The gun’s suspension chain swings back and forth, now relieved of its 20-ton load

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

He accidentally fell out of the plane, tore open the bomb bay door and disappeared into space

In the way that seemingly insignificant actions can spiral into unimaginable disaster, either a co-observer’s zip pull accidentally caught an 8-inch-long section of (also accidentally) exposed manual release cable, or one of the two observers accidentally rested their body weight on the control cable

Lanko, just then armed to release the weapon, gave way

A gigantic 20-ton hydrogen bomb dropped from the plane

The Mk17 hydrogen bomb, the largest ever built in the US, is 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 go-around, downwind section, 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 [was] removed and placed in another location

When the accident was finally declassified in August 1986, Jackson continued in an interview with the Associated Press: “It was routine at the time “

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

However, the bomb still packed 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 from the Sandia nuclear reservation, where the weapon, ironically, was delivered for permanent disarmament, it contained 300 pounds of conventional explosives blasted a hole 12 feet deep and 25 feet in diameter to trigger a nuclear detonation

It threw bomb fragments a mile away

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

It wasn’t until nearly three decades later that details of the accident finally emerged in the media following a Freedom of Information Act investigation by an Associated Press and Journal reporter 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 that appeared after the incident was finally declassified

But for some reason, this story never gained attention 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 a writer, journalist, photographer and editor who has written articles that have been published worldwide on TheAviationistcom, TACAIRNETcom, Outside magazine, Business Insider, We Are The Mighty, The Dearborn Press & Guide, National Interest , the Russian government media outlet 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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