Albuquerque, New Mexico was nearly obliterated by an accidental detonation of a 10-megaton hydrogen bomb dropped on the outskirts of Kirtland Air Force Base.
by Les Adler, special to THE ALBUQUERQUE TRIBUNE
At 11:50 a.m. on May 22, 1957, I was a 15-year-old sophomore at Highland High School in Albuquerque when the city and a good portion of the surrounding region were nearly obliterated by the accidental detonation of a 10-megaton hydrogen bomb dropped on the outskirts of Kirtland Air Force Base.
First reported to the public in 1986, this early “broken arrow,” as such accidents were referred to in military jargon, became as much a historical “non-event” during the intervening Cold War decades as the recently exposed atmospheric radioactivity showers and radiation experiments. Like these tests, it, too, was a product of what Sen. John Glenn has called “the Cold War frenzy which gripped our nation.”
Those of us living in the region had long known, and, indeed, were strangely proud of the fact, that Albuquerque was likely to be a major enemy military target due to the region’s role in the production, testing and storage of atomic and hydrogen weaponry.
Nearby Sandia Base, nestled in the foothills of the Manzano Mountains, was widely suspected of housing extensive underground storage facilities where much of the nation’s nuclear arsenal was guarded.
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Electrified, barbed-wire double fences, patrolled by guard dogs, were clearly visible from the highway as one entered or left Albuquerque through Tijeras Canyon to the east.
Sixty miles to the northwest, the heavily guarded Atomic City of Los Alamos, creation site of the first atomic bombs and then, as now, a major national arms production laboratory, guaranteed our supremacy as a prime Soviet target.
On that particular day in May 1957, unknown to any of us, a huge B-36 bomber with a crew of 13 was preparing to land at Kirtland Air Force base.
On board, as recounted in John May’s “The Greenpeace Book of the Nuclear Age” and later interviews with surviving crewmen, was the Gold War’s ultimate product.
It was a 42,000-pound, 10-megaton hydrogen bomb – the largest weapon ever made in the world up to that time, and the first droppable thermonuclear device – traveling incognito under the code name of Mark 17.
The giant bomber, a mainstay of America’s Strategic Air Command forces, was commanded by veteran pilot Air Force Lt. Col. Richard Meyer with the mission of ferrying its deadly payload from Biggs Air Force Base in Texas to Albuquerque’s Kirtland field.
Standard operating procedure on all such flights called for the manual removal of the locking pin designed to prevent accidental in-flight release of bombs to allow emergency jettisoning of weapons, if necessary, during takeoffs and landings.
The awkward procedure required a crew member, usually the navigator, to climb into the bomb bay and lean over the body of the bomb at the start and end of each flight to set and later remove the large U-2 pin.
On May 22,1st Lt. Bob Carp was assigned the onerous task.
With the plane descending to 1,700 feet and making its final approach before landing at Kirtland, Carp began moving back toward the bomb.
As described years later by another crewman, the difficult job resulted in Carp hanging over the 25 foot long, steel-encased weapon, roughly the size and shape of a large whale, “literally by his toes” to retrieve the pin.
It was 11:49 a.m.
The plane was nearly four miles south of the airfield, and landing conditions were normal as Carp completed his stretch across the gleaming, rounded shape lying silent and inert in the plane’s belly.
Packed with the explosive power of more than 10 million tons of TNT, enough to destroy a dozen Hiroshimas or Moscows, this bomb and others like it, always in the air somewhere in the world awaiting coded attack signals, formed the foundation of America’s proclaimed military posture of “massive retaliation.”
Slim Pickens, Dr. StrangeloveWhat happened next is in dispute.
Previously published reports describe Carp reaching up to regain his balance and pull himself into the cockpit, and being unexpectedly jolted as the huge bomber bounced through a pocket of turbulent air.
Trying to avoid a fall, according to this version, he grabbed for the nearest hand-hold, a lever that immediately gave way under his weight, triggering a rapid succession of events: the giant bomb under his feet instantly sank, pulled free from its mooring and tore its way straight downward, directly through the closed bomb bay doors, ripping them away and opening a gaping, terrifying hole in the bottom of the plane; and the bomber itself; suddenly released from the weight of its 21-ton payload, bounded upward, gaining more than 1,500 feet of altitude in seconds before the startled pilot could regain control.
In a recent interview, however, Carp, now a businessman in San Francisco, has challenged the turbulence-fall scenario. He asserts — as the one eyewitness to the entire event — that a “defectively designed” manual release mechanism had been accidentally pulled into release mode by a snag in his long cable, causing the bomb to drop the instant he pulled the pin.
There is agreement on what follows.
“Bombs away!” reflexively screamed one nearby crewman, his eyes wide with shock as he peered in-to the newly opened void where the weapon and the man had been.
According to another witness, Electronics Operator Jack Resen, it was only a few seconds later that Carp, his face, “whiter than any sheet you ever saw,” slowly pulled himself out of the remaining bomb bay, yelling even above the deafening roar of jet engines and rushing air, “I didn’t touch anything! I didn’t touch anything!”
Radio Operator George Houston, seated nearby, alertly responded by sending a distress call to the Kirtland tower. To the stunned operator, he reported the ominous news: “We’ve dropped a hydrogen bomb!”
The bomb itself plummeted downward with frightening speed, the 1,700 foot drop far too short for its parachutes to slow its descent.
(CLICK ABOVE FOR ENLARGEMENT – – “Ground Zero” impact area today at Mesa del Sol – photo, courtesy of Carl Willis – – by the way, this location has the best, panoramic view of the entire Manzano-Sandia Base, Albuquerque’s military test base since 1947!!)
Long before the plane could pull away, the weapon smashed into the nearly barren mesa, where a lone New Mexico cow peacefully munched sagebrush, oblivious to the source and immediacy of its own destruction.
There was an earth-shattering explosion as the weapon detonated.
For most of the intervening years the American public knew nothing of what had happened, and, officially, of course, the event didn’t happen at all.
It was only in 1986 when an Albuquerque newspaper published an account based on military documents recovered through the Freedom of Information Act that the rest of us learned of this accident, and the many other Broken Arrows, both civilian and military, that occurred both at home and abroad.
READ THE COMPLETE, WHOLE STORY HERE:
(Adler was a professor of history at the Hutchins School of Liberal Studies at Sonoma State University in California.)
Here is my YouTube summary of this amazing event:
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