“Aircraft 53-1876A Has Lost A Device”

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The Strategic Air Command (SAC) was founded in 1946 to provide a force capable of nuclear retaliation against the Soviet Union. In October 1948, Curds LeMay took over as commander. During World War II he had earned the unaffectionate title Iron Ass for what his airmen considered a fanatic devotion to training. In his bombing campaign against Germany, LeMay had developed a scheme of flying bombers in tight formations over enemy territory, thus permitting them to protect one another from enemy fighters. To improve bombing accuracy, he came up with the idea of “lead” navigation. Selected crews became highly familiar with the approach routes to specific targets, and the entire tightly grouped formation would drop its bombs when the lead plane did. LeMay’s revolutionary tactics became standard U.S. practice; but flying large bombers in tight formations for hours was not a natural act, and it took a great deal of work to develop the concentration to do it routinely.

Not surprisingly, LeMay brought the deep faith in training he developed during World War II to his new job at SAC. Virtually every aspect of the routines he devised was quantified, with points awarded for performance counting heavily in promotions. The results of particularly important activities, such as simulated combat missions like “Snow Flurry,” were relayed electrically to SAC headquarters, where senior officers, including the commander himself, reviewed them aggressively. If a mission did not go well, the local commander might receive a direct message from LeMay demanding a personal briefing on the reasons. Local commanders were, to say the least, anxious to avoid this.

Losing a “device”

The nuclear weapon that landed on Mars Bluff was a Mark 6 30-kiloton bomb, an older fission (nonhydrogen) design considered highly reliable. It weighed 7,600 pounds, was 10 feet 8 inches long, and had a maximum diameter of 61 inches. Starting at eight o’clock on the morning of March 11, a specialized two-man loading crew took one hour and seven minutes to put the bomb into Air Force 531876A. When the loading team had trouble engaging the steel locking pin, they called the weapons release systems supervisor for assistance. He took the weight of the weapon off the plane’s bomb-shackle mechanism, put it onto a sling, and then “jiggled” the pin with a hammer until it seated. The bomb was put back on the shackle, and preflight checks continued. But neither the bomb-loading crew nor the aircrew ran the locking pin through its engage/disengage cycle with the bomb’s weight on the shackle. For the crew to receive maximum points for its unit under the ground rules, all preflight checks had to be finished by 10:30. It is difficult not to suspect that institutional pressure to gain points led to omission of this step.

After the bomb had been loaded and the preflight checks completed, the crew went to briefings on weather and operations, had lunch, and returned to the plane about 2:40. At 3:42 Captain Koehler started his engines. At 3:51, as required by regulations, co-pilot Woodruff rotated his seat to face aft and pulled the lever to disengage the locking pin from the nuclear weapon. It could now be dropped instantly in case of an emergency. At 3:53 the plane took off to join three other B-47s for a formation flight to Europe. When the B-47 reached an altitude of 5,000 feet, Woodruff again rotated his seat, this time to re-engage the locking pin. He worked the locking lever unsuccessfully for five minutes as the B-47 climbed to 15,000 feet to join the three other aircraft. At this point, the crew knew it had a problem. The pilot told the bombardier, Captain Kulka, to go into the bomb bay to try to seat the locking pin by hand. This was not a trivial decision; the bomb bay was not pressurized, so the entire plane had to be depressurized. Because the plane was at 15,000 feet, the crew had to go on oxygen. Further complicating matters, the entrance to the bomb bay was so narrow that a parachute could not be worn into it. The task was doomed from the start; later testimony indicated Kulka had no idea where to find the locking pin in the large and complicated bomb-release mechanism. After a tense 12 minutes searching for the pin, the bombardier decided, correctly, that it must be high up in the bomb bay and invisible because of the curvature of the bomb. A short man, he jumped to pull himself up to get a look at where he thought the locking pin should be. Unfortunately, he evidently chose the emergency bomb-release mechanism for his handhold. The weapon dropped from its shackle and rested momentarily on the closed bomb-bay doors with Captain Kulka splayed across it in the manner of Slim Pickens in Dr. Strangelove. Kulka grabbed at a bag that had providentially been stored in the bomb bay, while the more-than-three-ton bomb broke open the bomb-bay doors and fell earthward. The bag Kulka was holding came loose, and he found himself sliding after the bomb without his parachute. He managed to grab something—he wasn’t sure what—and haul himself to safety. Moments later the plane was rocked by the shock wave of the blast when the bomb hit the ground.