On This Day In History: Biggest Bomber, Biggest H

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

(Photo: Tom Demerly/TheAviationist)

In a box, the Mk17 hydrogen bomb, the largest the US has ever dropped, is on display at the National Museum of the Air Force in Dayton, Ohio

The day a B-36 accidentally dropped the US’s largest hydrogen bomb on Kirtland AFB

Following yesterday’s news that surveillance flights verifying US compliance with nuclear arms limitation treaties were withdrawing from the Open Skies Treaty, it’s worth revisiting a horrific event 63 years ago today: the previously classified Kirtland AFB Accident B-36 Hydrogen Bomb May 22, 1957 was thrown in

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

Technically, Pulitzer Prize finalist and investigative journalist Eric Schlosser’s 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 deployed by the United States

It is difficult to compare its destructive power with the nuclear bomb dropped on Hiroshima, but according to reasonable estimates, the Mk 17 “Little Man” is 1000 times more powerful than the Hiroshima nuclear bomb

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

1148 hrs Local Wed 22 May 1957; Downwind Traffic Leg, Runway 26, Kirtland AFB

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

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

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

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

Due to the warming of the air inside the bomber with the decrease in height, one of the two people opened the flight jacket

One minute later: 1149 hours The Local, Wednesday, May 22, 1957; Downwind Traffic Leg, Runway 26, Kirtland AFB

Flying toward the end of the runway, now descending below 1,700 feet

At the rear of the B-36J, an accidentally exposed control cable attached to the Mk 17’s transport cradle release lever is momentarily caught in the zipper area of ​​one of the crewman’s flight jackets as he confirms that the manual safety locking pin has been removed preparation for landing

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

A sudden blast of wind filling the B-36J’s cavernous bomb bay causes the plane to suddenly slide upward, as if released from under some large load

The rattle of an empty bomb cradle is barely audible above the deafening blast of wind

Daylight bursts into the previously dark expanse of the fuselage

The giant bomb bay suddenly emptied, the bomb bay doors cracked open and flapped in the wind outside the plane

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

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

He accidentally fell out of the plane, tore off the bomb bay doors and disappeared into space

Just as seemingly insignificant actions can turn into unimaginable disaster, either the bomb spotter’s zipper accidentally gets caught on a section of the 8-inch-long (also accidental) manual release cable, or one of the two spotters accidentally puts their body weight on the control cable

Cable, armed only to release the weapon at that moment, released

A huge 20-ton hydrogen bomb fell from the plane

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

(Photo: National Museum of the Air Force)

(Photo: National Museum of the Air Force)

Thirty seconds later: 1151 hours The Local, Wednesday, May 22, 1957; Emergency Departure, Downwind Traffic Leg, Runway 26, Kirtland AFB

According to Dave Jackson, a spokesman for the US Department of Energy in Albuquerque, New Mexico, “Part of the original weapon was removed and placed elsewhere “

“It was standard procedure at the time,” Jackson told The Associated Press when the crash was finally declassified in August 1986

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

Although the bomb was still filled with a mighty conventional wall

It meant 300 pounds of conventional explosives 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 base reservation, where the weapon was turned over for permanent decommissioning blasted a hole 12 feet deep and 25 feet in diameter to trigger a nuclear explosion

He threw fragments of the bomb a mile away

It also scattered low-level nuclear material at the detonation site

In August 1986, after a Freedom of Information Act request by a reporter from The Associated Press and The Journal, the details of the accident finally emerged in the media

Today, the event is chronicled in Michael H’s book Broken Arrow: The Declassified History of US Nuclear Weapons Accidents

Oskins (Lulucom, January, 2008) and several articles following the incident eventually declassified

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

instagramTom Demerly is a feature writer, journalist, photographer and editor who has published articles around the world at TheAviationistcom, TACAIRNETcom, Outside magazine, Business Insider, We Are The Mighty, The Dearborn Press & Guide, and National Interest , Russian government media outlet Sputnik and many other publications

Demerly studied journalism at Henry Ford College in Dearborn, Michigan

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

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