When a B-47 pilot got rid of a nuclear bomb near Savannah, Georgia
The story of another nuclear weapon unacccounted for in the U.S.
There have been a lot of articles about the famous collision of a B-47 carrying a nuclear bomb, with a F-86 over the skies of Georgia during the late 1950s.
What really happened about 56 years ago, can be found in the book “Boeing B-47 Stratojet: True Stories Of The Cold War In The Air” to which Col. Howard Richardson submitted his first-hand account of that fateful night and its “Broken Arrow” event.
On Feb. 4, 1958, Aircraft Commander Major Howard Richardson, from the 19th Bombardment Wing, took off in a B-47B (S/N 51-2349) from Homestead AFB in Florida for a typical USCM (unit simulated combat mission). Common in those days, some training missions included the carrying of a nuclear bomb (for safety reasons the detonation cores were not installed during training missions). The reason for carrying a nuclear weapon on training missions was to increase the crews training and professionalism by making it as realistic as possible and to stay qualified as combat crews for SAC. On this particular flight Maj. Richardson, Co-Pilot 1st Lt. Robert Lagerstrom, and Radar-Navigator Capt. Leland Woolard would fly a simulated bombing run on Radford, Virginia while carrying a 7,000 lb. Mk-15 nuclear bomb.
Their training flight would take them all the way north to the Canadian border and then turn south to start the simulated bombing run on Radford. While over Virginia they were subjugated to “enemy” fighters and practiced using their ECM system.
After they flew their simulated bombing run on Radford, they proceeded southward to “friendly” territory over the Carolinas. At this point the B-47 was cruising around 39,000 ft, clear skies and leaving contrails. The crew started noticing F-86’s flying above and below going west then east.
Since they were now in “friendly territory”, they were not too concerned with these “enemy fighters” and ignored them since they were not part of the training mission. These enemy bandits were F-86’s from the 444th Fighter-Interceptor Squadron out of Charleston AFB.
About 30 minutes after midnight, now Feb. 5, the B-47 was near the border of South Carolina and Georgia when they felt a major jolt along with a bright flash of light to their starboard wing.
The crew saw the #6 engine was hanging from the wing at about a 45 degree angle and the starboard fuel tank was missing. Maj. Richardson started calling a mayday over the radio and Lt. Lagerstrom was able to get in touch with the nearest SAC air base in their area, which was Hunter AFB outside of Savannah, Georgia. Standard protocol requires that SAC HQ be notified right away of their condition along with Homestead, which the tower at Hunter did.
Maj. Richardson brought the bomber down to 20,000 ft and asked the navigator, Capt. Woodard, to let him know when they would be over a wooded area so that he could jettison the port wing tank.
Once the port wing tank was jettisoned, Richardson lowered the flaps and landing gear and slowed the B-47 to 220 knots to determined how controllable the damaged bomber was. Richardson, who was also an instructor pilot for the B-47’s had 1,500 hours of flying time, determined that the jet was flyable for approach and landing.
Bringing the flaps and gear back up, they proceeded to Hunter for an emergency landing. At this time the crew discussed what to do with the Mk-15 on board; do they jettison it, or try and do an emergency landing with it on board. SAC tactical doctrine dictated that the safety of the crew is the number one priority. The decision was mostly made for them when the tower at Hunter told them that the runway was being repaired and that the start of the runway was about a foot higher above the rest of the ground and had not been leveled out yet.
Richardson worrying that if the bomber came in short and hitting the unfinished runway, “the Mk-15 might proceed towards the cockpit like a bullet from the barrel of a gun”. Also, jettisoning the bomb would lighten the plane by 7,600 pounds and would help with airspeed when landing. They notified Hunter tower that they were planning on jettisoning the bomb over water and to contact SAC HQ to get their approval.
They then descended east out towards the Atlantic and made a wide turn back towards the airbase. They still hadn’t heard back from SAC but decided to jettison the bomb anyway. According to Richardson, right after that they got the approval from SAC. But SAC did request that they release the bomb 20 miles from the shore. The bomb was unfortunately dropped a lot closer to shore. Richardson replied back to Hunter tower saying that they had already jettisoned the bomb and made sure Capt. Woodard recorded the spot where they had release it.
As Maj. Richardson made his final approach he reduced his airspeed to 220 knots, high for the approach but he was worried about the #6 engine dragging since it was hanging at an angle.
Richardson was hoping that his landing speed would be around 180 knots or less. Fighting to keep the wings level and the aircraft centered to the runway, Richardson had to reduce his speed even more. When they touched down on the runway, they were still going too fast and did a skip. Once they came back down they released the brake chute and applied the brakes.
Besides the one skip, Richardson and Lagerstrom were able to land the B-47 with no other problems. As the crew exited the bomber all three kissed the tarmac. Reviewing the bomber, they found the right aileron pushed in 20 inches for a length of four feet. There was a big hole in the vertical stabilizer, in the empty fuel tank, and another hole in the horizontal stabilizer right behind the ECM plates on the right side of the fuselage and the tail turret. They also found out later that the main spar was broken.
The crew were taken to base operations and given a room in the visitor officer quarters. When they arrived there, Richardson told the crew to write down everything that they remembered about the collision all the way to the landing. Richardson was preparing his crew for the grilling that they soon were going to be receiving, based on his past experiences with accident reports. The crew were soon coming to grips with the knowledge that they would be at Hunter AFB for quite some time, possibly until a Court-Martial was completed.
The grilling would be done by the commander of SAC, General Power, and his staff. General Power was arriving in a KC-135 from Homestead AFB.
After a few hours of sleep the crew was woken up and told to be ready to brief General Power. After another review of their notes and another inspection of the damaged B-47, they prepared for the worst. They proceeded to brief Gen. Power and his staff, showing on a map where the collision had occurred, their flight path back to Hunter and where they had dropped the Mk. 15. After briefing and answering all the questions, Gen. Power told the B-47 crew to get their gear and board his plane, as he was taking them back to Homestead.
One interesting fact about General Power is that he did his own take offs on his KC-135. After take off and leveling out the plane for the flight back, Gen. Powers came back to where the crew of the B-47 were sitting. Not knowing why they were being rushed back on General Power’s personal jet, the B-47 crew were quite nervous when the General approached them.
To their amazement, Gen. Power said he had spoken to General LeMay (who was CINC USAF at the time) and asked for his permission to pin a DFC (Distinguished Flying Cross) on Maj. Richardson and commendation medals on copilot 1st Lt. Robert Lagerstrom, and Radar-Navigator Capt. Leland Woolard!
Maj. Richardson was promoted to Lt. Colonel shortly after the incident. It wasn’t until later that Maj. Richardson found out that it was an F-86 (S/N F-86L-50-NA 52-10108) that collide with his bomber. Not too much longer after that he was promoted to squadron commander. He later flew B-52s and after 31years, retired from the Air Force in 1973.
Image credit: U.S. Air Force
One of his recommendations after the incident was to add anti-collision lights on all military and civilian aircraft.
The pilot who was flying the F-86 was Clarence Stewart and he had ejected after colliding with the bomber.
Unfortunately he was wearing a thin summer jump suit and landed in a big swamp in Georgia. Luckily, he was found by some locals who brought him into their house and called for help. It took over a month for Mr. Stuart to recover from frostbites and other injures.
To this date the Mk. 15 bomb has never been found and is presumed to be buried deep off the coast of Tybee Island near Savannah, Georgia.
Bjørn Broten for TheAviationist.com