On this day in 1968 a B-52 crashed in Greenland with 4 hydrogen bombs

On Jan. 21, 1968, a B-52G Stratofortress belonging to the 380th Strategic Bomb Wing from Plattsburgh Air Force Base, New York, crashed in in Greenland in what is remembered as the second “Broken Arrow” incident (yes, that codeword is not only used in movies).

The bomber, using radio callsign “Hobo 28” was flying an armed peacetime airborne alert mission known under the codename of “Hard Head”:  its purpose was to maintain a visual surveillance of the Ballistic Missile Early Warning System (BMEWS), which provided early warning of Soviet missile launches, at Thule Air Base.

During the mission, the Stratofortress experienced a cockpit fire, failed to make an emergency landing at Thule and eventually crashed on sea ice in North Star Bay.

Six of the seven crew members were able to eject the aircraft but the four hydrogen bombs carried by the B-52 (that did not detonate because of “Weak Links” safety mechanisms) released radioactive material.

In spite of an attempt to restrict the leaks, the high winds, the cold temperatures and the fire caused by the burning Stratofortress caused the dispersion of some other radioactive material into the sea.

Btw, one of the four B-28 Thermonuclear remains unaccounted for, after 46 years.

The crash, which followed the other Broken Arrow incident occurred in Spain two years earlier, highlighted the safety (and diplomatic) risks those kind of airborne alert missions, which were immediately ended.

Image credit: Wiki

 

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About David Cenciotti
David Cenciotti is a freelance journalist based in Rome, Italy. He is the Founder and Editor of “The Aviationist”, one of the world’s most famous and read military aviation blogs. Since 1996, he has written for major worldwide magazines, including Air Forces Monthly, Combat Aircraft, and many others, covering aviation, defense, war, industry, intelligence, crime and cyberwar. He has reported from the U.S., Europe, Australia and Syria, and flown several combat planes with different air forces. He is a former 2nd Lt. of the Italian Air Force, a private pilot and a graduate in Computer Engineering. He has written five books and contributed to many more ones.

10 Comments

  1. Can anyone explain why a plane on a peace-time surveillance mission needed to carry quite so many H-bombs?

    • 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. Though I don’t know when these type of training missions stopped. Perhaps someone else could chime in to answer that question…

    • It was common practice for strategic assets to carry nukes for training and in case the ballon went up while on a routine training mission. Our ohio class subs still carry doomsday in their bellies at this very moment…MAD.

    • IIRC this was a SAC mandated “Chrome Dome” missions-one of 12 airborne bombers, 24 hours a day with live nuclear weapons. This particular mishap the airplane/crew were flying the BMEWS mission “operation Hard Head” in conjunction with Chrome Dome when the loss of the aircraft occurred.
      Makes sense even today if I have an airborne nuclear alert commitment as ordered by the NCA, instead of wasting the time and resources reconfiguring my plane from live to inert munitions allow the mission be two fold-surveillance of the BMEWS line and if need be-be ready for nuclear attack. It is how my fighter squadron does it.

      • “I’m just going to keep these four hydrogen bombs with me, just in case.” Seems legit..

    • The B-52 and other military aircraft on training missions need to carry a lot of bombs becuz the DoD is awash with dollars. Note the number of training exercise and war drills demanded by the DoD yearly. It averages out to several per day or hundreds per year.

  2. So a US nuke has been missing for 46 years? That’s comforting. I wonder if it’ll resurface now that Greenland’s ice is melting, and if so, whether people will recognise it to be a nuke in time.

  3. Not ot mention created some fuss as this crash was on foreign (to the US) territory – of a country that had a public policy not to allow nuclear weapons to be stationed on its territory. That fallout was also tricky… Most (quickly Googleable) later reports here actually claims that the 4th bomb was never recovered (but also, despite one persisting conspiracy theory, that is was certainly broken up and not functional as a weapon).

    Another thing was the contamination of the area – still, higher levels of plutonium is measured in the area. It seems, luckily, that the health patterns in the local population who were involved in the clean-up has not been statistically significantly affected.

  4. The funny thing of this famous accident is that a strategic bomber with nuclear weapons onboard was downed by a fire generated from a cabin heating system malfunction… that ignited some pillows used from the crew to have more comfort during their very long range missions… the worst thing is the enduring controversy about radiation-related illness suffered by civilians workers involved into the Thule clenaning operations (Operation Crested Ice). Anyway, this accident ended the Chrome Dome in-flight alert missions, because of their dangers.

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