Sunday, May 22, 2011

May 22, 1957

Albuquerque's Near Doomsday.

A hydrogen bomb was accidentally dropped from a plane just south of Kirtland Air Force Base

"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."

What 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. 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."

"According to the investigation, Field Command, a division of the Armed Forces Special Weapons Project, conducted recovery and clean-up operations at the site shortly after the nonevent. What they found was a crater 12 feet deep and 25 feet in diameter, blown, fortunately, in uninhabited land owned by the University of New Mexico.

Only the bomb's conventional explosives - those necessary but not sufficient to start the nuclear chain reaction - were triggered by the fall, and, according to the experts, no radioactivity was detected beyond the lip of the crater. Traces of the luckless cow, reportedly, were scattered over a much wider area."

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