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Early in the morning of January 16, 1966, a B-52 Stratofortress bomber took off from Seymour Johnson Air Force Base in North Carolina.


The bomber headed for Europe, where it would patrol near the borders of the Soviet Union with four nuclear weapons, as part of Operation Chrome Dome, a Cold War program aimed at providing response capabilities fast 24 hours a day in the event of war.

On its return to the United States the next day, the B-52 was to join a KC-135 tanker to refuel over Spain. Captain Charles Wendorf, the 29-year-old Air Force pilot flying the bomber, asked his staff pilot, Major Larry Messinger, to take over as the point approached. refueling.

Just after 10 a.m. on January 17, the planes began their approach 31,000 feet over eastern Spain. Messinger sensed that something was wrong.

“We got behind the tanker, and we were a little quick, and we started to overtake it a bit,” Messinger recalls, according to American Heritage magazine.

Side view of the YB-52 bomber. (Image courtesy of USAF)

“There is a refueling procedure whereby if the boom operator feels that you are getting too close and it is a dangerous situation, he will call ‘escape, escape, escape,’,” Messinger said. “There had been no call for a breakaway so we didn’t see anything dangerous in the situation, but all of a sudden all hell seemed to be breaking loose.”

The B-52 collided with the tanker. The belly of the KC-135 was torn and kerosene spilled into the tanker and onto the bomber. Explosions tore the two planes apart, consuming the tanker and killing the four men on board. Three men in the tail of the bomber were killed and the other four crew members were ejected.

Captain Ivens Buchanan, strapped in his ejection seat, was caught in the fireball and burned. He crashed to the ground, but survived. Wendorf and Lieutenant Richard Rooney’s parachutes opened at 14,000 feet and they drifted out to sea where the fishermen rescued them.

Messinger hit his head during the ejection. “I opened my parachute. Well, I shouldn’t have done that. I should have fallen in free fall and the parachute would automatically open at 14,000 feet, ”he said. “But I opened mine anyway, due to being hit in the head, I guess.” It drifted eight miles offshore, where it was also picked up by fishermen.

A Spanish fisherman 5 miles offshore at the time reported seeing the explosion and the debris shower. He then saw five parachutes – three with surviving bomber crew members; two others carrying “half a man, guts dragging” and a “dead man”.

Shortly after, on the ground in Spain, Air Force base officers rushed to pack any troops they could find – cooks, employees and musicians – on buses to head to Palomares, a village. coastal agricultural area of ​​southeastern Spain.

“It was just chaos,” John Garman, then a military police officer, told the New York Times in 2016. “The wreckage was all over the village. Much of the bomber had crashed in the schoolyard.

By the evening of January 17, all the airmen had been found and no villagers were injured. But US personnel continued to search for the four nuclear bombs the B-52 was carrying.

Research days

Watch this Special Operator storm a ship with a jetpack like Iron Man
Eighty days after it fell into the ocean following the January 1966 mid-air collision between a B-52G nuclear bomber and a KC-135 tanker over Palomares, Spain, this B28RI nuclear bomb was retrieved at 2,850 feet (869 meters) of water and surveyed aboard the USS Petrel. (US Navy Image)

The bombs – each carrying 1.45 megatons of explosive power, about 100 times more than the bomb dropped on Hiroshima – were unarmed, meaning there was no chance of a nuclear explosion.

One of them was recovered intact, but the explosives of two of them, designed to explode and trigger a nuclear explosion, went off. The explosions left house-sized craters on either side of the village, scattering plutonium and contaminating crops and farmland.

“There was no discussion about radiation, plutonium or anything,” Frank B. Thompson, then 22-year-old trombone player, told The New York Times in 2016.

Thompson and others spent days searching the contaminated fields without protective gear or even a change of clothes. “They told us it was safe, and we were stupid enough, I guess, to believe them,” he said.

The fourth bomb went missing after days of searching, its absence embarrassing for the United States and potentially fatal for residents of the region.

The Pentagon brought in engineers from Sandia National Laboratories in New Mexico, who analyzed the available figures to determine where the missing bomb could have landed. The circumstances of the accident and the multitude of variables made such an estimate difficult.

Clues pointed to a sea landing for the fourth bomb, but there was little concrete data to indicate where.

An interview with the fisherman who saw five of the bomber’s crew disembark at sea made a breakthrough.

The “dead man” was, in fact, the bomb attached to his parachute, and the “half man, with his guts trailing” was the empty parachute bag with its packing lines trailing in the air.

This information led the engineers assisting the research to recommend a new search area, bringing the total area covered to 27 square miles – with visibility of only 20 feet in some places.

On February 11, the Navy called Alvin, a submersible 22 feet long and 8 feet wide weighing 13 tons. It had room for a pilot and two observers, carried several cameras and a grapple arm, and could dive to 6,000 feet.

Also read: 32 times the US military messed up with nuclear weapons

AlvinPrimitive s technology made research a chore. There was no progress until March 1, when they spotted a trail on the seabed.

Two more weeks of research passed before they spotted the bomb 2,550 feet below the surface, almost exactly where the fisherman had seen it enter the water. On March 24, divers Alvin managed to attach a line to the bomb parachute. Just after 8 p.m., a winch on a Navy vessel began to wind the line. About an hour later, the line broke, sending the bomb back to the ocean floor.

They found him on April 2, resting about 350 feet deep in the same area. The Navy set up another recovery plan using an unmanned recovery vehicle, but he got stuck in the bomb parachute. On April 7, the admiral who was leading the search ordered his crew to lift everything.

The laborious process that followed, aided by Navy frogmen, brought the missing nuclear bomb to the surface, bringing the 81-day saga to an end.

AlvinThe pilots have become international heroes, but nothing else about the incident ended so well.

“They told us everything was safe”

U.S. soldiers plowed 600 acres of crops in Palomares, sending them to the Savannah River nuclear complex in South Carolina for disposal.

The US government paid $ 710,914 to settle 536 Spanish claims. The fisherman, who was claiming his claim for finding the bomb, sued for $ 5 million and ultimately won $ 14,566. Madrid, where the demonstrators chanted “Yankee assassins! during the search, asked the American strategic air command to stop its flights over Spain. The airborne warning program of which Operation Chrome Dome was part was interrupted and then definitively stopped in 1992.

The American personnel involved in the research and the Spaniards in the region have lived with the legacy of the accident for the half century since it occurred.

Despite the soil being removed immediately after, tests in the 1990s revealed high levels of americium, a product of the decomposition of plutonium, in the village. Further tests showed that 50,000 cubic meters of soil remained radioactive. The United States agreed to clean up the contamination remaining in the village in 2015.

Many American veterans who participated in the research said they were facing the effects of plutonium poisoning. Linking cancers to a single radiation exposure is impossible, and no studies have been conducted to assess whether they have a high incidence of disease, but in the years since, some have been ravaged by disease.

Watch this Special Operator storm a ship with a jetpack like Iron Man
The mystery of why these people smile also persists.

Of the 40 veterans involved in the research who were identified by The Times in 2016, 21 had cancer – nine had died from it.

Many men blamed the Air Force, which sent them to clean up the scene with little protective gear and then fed the troops the contaminated crops that the Spaniards refused to eat. A military police officer was given a plastic bag and asked to pick up the radioactive fragments by hand.

The Air Force also rejected tests carried out at the time showing the men had high levels of plutonium contamination.

“It took me a long time to start realizing that maybe it had to do with cleaning up the bombs,” said Arthur Kindler, who was a grocery store clerk at the time of the incident.

He was so covered in plutonium during the cleanup that the Air Force had him wash in the ocean and took his clothes off. Four years later, he developed testicular cancer and a rare lung infection; he has had lymph node cancer three times since then.

“You have to understand, they told us everything was safe,” Kindler said. “We were young. We trusted them. Why would they lie?



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