Looking Backward Into the Present

Using the Popular Culture of the Past to Help Answer Perplexing Questions in the Present

What would happen if an aircraft accidentally dropped a nuclear weapon?

According to rough estimates, there are at least 30,000 nuclear weapons in existence.  It is probably safe to say that a large percentage of those devices have been transported by air at one point or another.  So what would the government do if a nuclear device was accidentally dropped from an aircraft and didn’t explode?


The answer is: probably nothing.  They would leave it there and do nothing.  Think I’m joking? Think again.


One of my favorite nuclear accidents (there are many) is the accidental dropping of a Mark 15 hydrogen bomb off the coast of Tybee Island in Savannah, Georgia on February 5, 1958.  According to reports, the bomb was jettisoned in a mid-air collision and lost somewhere in the Wassaw Sound.  Fifty years and many searches later, they still have not found the bomb.  Seriously. 


Image of a Mark 15 hydrogen bomb similar to the one lost in the waters off Tybee Island

Image of a Mark 15 hydrogen bomb similar to the one lost in the waters off Tybee Island



According to various reports, the Air Force maintains that the bomb, presumed to be entombed in mud and dirt, doesn’t pose a threat because it is missing a key capsule needed to produce a nuclear reaction.  However, according to Wikipedia, the Air Force maintains that it is probably better to leave the bomb entombed in the mud, because it might explode.  There is logic that Joseph Heller, author of Catch-22, can be proud of. 


Wikipedia has a detailed list of military accidents involving nuclear weapons, known as “broken arrows”.  However, just to prove that my Tybee bomb story is not just an anomaly I’ll share another one of my favorite broken arrow stories.


On January 24, 1961, an Air Force bomber over Goldsboro, North Carolina caught fire and exploded in mid-air ejecting two hydrogen bombs in the chaos.  Here is the Pentagon’s official account of the incident:


During a B-52 airborne alert mission structural failure of the right wing resulted in two weapons separating from the aircraft during aircraft breakup at 2,000 – 10,000 feet altitude. One bomb parachute deployed and the weapon received little impact damage. The other bomb fell free and broke apart upon impact. No explosion occurred. Five of the eight crew members survived. A portion of one weapon, containing uranium, could not be recovered despite excavation in the waterlogged farmland to a depth of 50 feet. The Air Force subsequently purchased an easement requiring permission for anyone to dig there. There is no detectable radiation and no hazard in the area.


Nearly 48 years later, the bomb is still there.  Talk about littering. 


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