Broken Arrows: Nuclear Weapons Accidents

Since 1950, there have been 32 nuclear weapon accidents, known as "Broken Arrows." A Broken Arrow is defined as an unexpected event involving nuclear weapons that result in the accidental launching, firing, detonating, theft or loss of the weapon. To date, six nuclear weapons have been lost and never recovered.



1950s

Date: February 13, 1950
The B-36 was en route from Eielson AFB to Carswell AFB on a simulated combat profile mission. The weapon aboard the aircraft had a dummy capsule installed. After six hours of flight, the aircraft developed serious mechanical difficulties, making it necessary to shut down three engines. The aircraft was at 12,000 feet altitude. Icing conditions complicated the emergency and level flight could not be maintained. The aircraft headed out over the Pacific Ocean and dropped the weapon from 8,000 feet. A bright Flash occurred on impact, followed by a sound and shock wave. Only the weapon's high explosive material detonated. The aircraft was then flown over Princess Royal Island where the crew bailed out. The aircraft wreckage was later found on Vancouver Island.

Date: April 11, 1950
Location: Manzano Base, New Mexico
Aircraft departed Kirtland AFB at 9:38 p.m. and crashed into a mountain on Manzano Base approximately three minutes later killing the crew. Detonators were Installed in the bomb on board the aircraft. The bomb case was demolished and some high explosive (HE) material burned in the gasoline fire. Other pieces of unburned HE were scattered throughout the wreckage. Pour spare detonators in their carrying case were recovered undamaged. There were no contamination or recovery problems. The recovered components of the weapon were returned to the Atomic Energy Commission. Both the weapon and the capsule of nuclear material were on board the aircraft but the capsule was not inserted for safety reasons. A nuclear detonation was not possible.

Date: July 13. 1950
Location: Lebanon, Ohio
The B-50 was on a training mission from Biggs AFB, Texas. The aircraft was flying at 7,000 feet on a clear day. Aircraft nosed down and flew into the ground killing four officers and twelve airmen. The high explosive portion of the weapon aboard detonated on impact. There was no nuclear capsule aboard the aircraft.

Date: August 5. 1950
Location: Fairfield Suisun-AFB. California
A B-29 carrying a weapon, but no capsule, experienced two runaway propellers and landing gear retraction difficulties on takeoff from Fairfield-Suisun AF9 (now Travis AFB). The aircraft attempted an emergency landing and crashed and burned. The fire was fought for 12-15 minutes before the weapon's high explosive material detonated. Nineteen crew members and rescue personnel were killed in the crash and/or the resulting detonation, including General Travis.

Date: November 10, 1950
Location: Quebec, Canada
A B-50 jettisoned a Mark 4 bomb over the St. Lawrence River near Riviere-du-Loup, about 300 miles northeast of Montreal. The weapon's HE [high explosive] detonated on impact. Although lacking its essential plutonium core, the explosion did scatter nearly 100 pounds (45 kg) of uranium. The plane later landed safely at a U.S. Air Force base in Maine.

Date: March 10, 1956
Location: Mediterranean Sea, exact location unknown
The aircraft was one of a flight of four scheduled for non-stop deployment from MacDill AFB to an overseas airbase. Take-off from MacDill and first refueling were normal. The second refueling point was over the Mediterranean Sea. In preparation for this, the flight penetrated solid cloud formation to descend to the refueling level of 14,000 feet. The base of the clouds was 14,500 feet and visibility was poor. The aircraft, carrying two nuclear capsules in carrying cases, never made contact with the tanker. An extensive search failed to locate any traces of the missing aircraft or crew. No weapons were aboard the aircraft, only two capsules of nuclear weapons material in carrying cases. A nuclear detonation was not possible.

Date: July 27, 1956
Location: Great Britain
A B-47 aircraft with no weapons aboard was on a routine training mission making a touch-and-go landing when the aircraft suddenly went out of control and slid off the runway, crashing into a storage igloo containing several nuclear weapons. The bombs did not burn or detonate. There were no contamination or cleanup problems. The damaged weapons and components were returned to the Atomic Energy Commission. The weapons that were involved were in storage configuration. No capsules of nuclear materials were in the weapons or present in the building.

Date: May 22, 1957
Location: Kirtland AFB, New Mexico
The aircraft was ferrying a weapon from Biggs AFB, Texas, to Kirtland AFB. At 11:50 a.m. MST, while approaching Kirtland at an altitude of 1.700 feet, the weapon dropped from the bomb bay taking the bomb bay doors with it. Weapon parachutes were deployed but apparently did not fully retard the fall because of the low altitude. The impact point was approximately 4.5 miles south of the Kirtland control tower and .3 miles west of the Sandia Base reservation. The high explosive material detonated, completely destroying the weapon and making a crater approximately 25 feet in diameter and 12 feet deep. Fragments and debris were scattered as far as one mile from the impact point. The release mechanism locking pin was being removed at the time of release. (It was standard procedure at that time that the locking pin be removed during takeoff and landing to allow for emergency jettison of the weapon if necessary.) Recovery and cleanup operations were conducted by Field Command, Armed Forces Special Weapons Project. A radiological survey of the area disclosed no radioactivity beyond the lip of the crater at which point the level was 0.5 milliroentgens. There were no health or safety problems. Both the weapon and capsule were on board the aircraft but the capsule was not inserted for safety reasons nuclear detonation was not possible.

Date: July 28. 1957
Location: Atlantic Ocean
Two weapons were jettisoned from a C-124 aircraft on July 28 off the east coast of the United States. There were three weapons and one nuclear capsule aboard the aircraft at the time. Nuclear components were not installed in the Weapons. The C-124 aircraft was enroute from Dover AFB, Delaware when a loss of power from number one and to engines was experienced. Maximum power was applied to the remaining engines; however, level Flight could not be maintained. At this point, the decision was made to jettison cargo in the interest of safety of the aircraft and crew. The first weapon was jettisoned at 4.500 feet altitude. The second weapon was jettisoned at approximately 2,500 feet altitude. No detonation occurred from either weapon. Both weapons are presumed to have been damaged from impact with the ocean surface. Both weapons are presumed to have submerged almost Instantly. The ocean varies in depth in the area of the jettisonings. The C-124 landed at an airfield in the vicinity of Atlantic City, New Jersey, with the remaining weapon and the nuclear capsule aboard. A search for the weapons or debris had negative results.

Date: October 11, 1957
Location: Homestead AFB, Florida
The B-47 departed Homestead AFB shortly after midnight on a deployment mission. Shortly after liftoff one of the aircraft's outrigger tires exploded. The aircraft crashed in an uninhabited area approximately 3,800 feet from the end of the runway. The aircraft was carrying one weapon in ferry configuration in the bomb bay and one nuclear capsule in a carrying case in the crew compartment. The weapon was enveloped in flames which burned and smoldered for approximately four hours after which time it was cooled with water. Two low-order high explosive detonations occurred during the burning. The nuclear capsule and its carrying case were recovered intact and only slightly damaged by heat. Approximately one-half of the weapon remained. All major components were damaged but were identifiable and accounted for.

Date: January 31, 1958
Location: Overseas Base
A B-47 with one weapon in strike configuration was making a simulated takeoff during an exercise alert. When the aircraft reached approximately 30 knots on the runway. The left rear wheel casting failed. The tail struck the runway and a fuel tank ruptured. The aircraft caught fire and burned for seven hours. Firemen fought the fire for the allotted ten minutes fire fighting time for high explosive contents of that weapon, then evacuated the area. The high explosive did not detonate, but there was some contamination in the immediate area of the crash. After the wreckage and the asphalt beneath it were removed and the runway washed down, no contamination was detected. One fire truck and one fireman's clothing showed slight alpha contamination until washed. Following the accident, exercise alerts were temporarily suspended and B-47 wheels were checked for defects.

Date: February 5, 1958
Location: Savannah River, Georgia
The B-47 was on a simulated combat mission that originated at Homestead AFB, Florida. While near Savannah, Georgia, the B-47 had a mid-air collision at 3:30 a.m. with an F-86 aircraft. Following the collision, the B-47 attempted three times to land at Hunter AFB, Georgia, with a weapon on board. Because of the condition of the aircraft, its airspeed could not be reduced enough to ensure a safe landing. Therefore, the decision was made to jettison the weapon rather than expose Hunter AFB to the possibility of a high explosive detonation. À nuclear detonation was not possible since the nuclear capsule was not aboard the aircraft. The weapon was jettisoned into the water several miles from the mouth of the Savannah River (Georgia) in Wassaw Sound of Tybee Beach. The precise weapon impact point is unknown. The weapon was dropped from an altitude of approximately 7,200 feet at an aircraft speed of 180-190 knots. No detonation occurred. After jettison, the B-47 landed safely. A three-square mile area was searched using a ship with divers and underwater demolition team technicians using Galvanic drag and hand-held sonar devices. The weapon was not found. The search was terminated on April 16, 1958. The weapon was considered to be irretrievably lost.

Date: February 28, 1958
Location: Great Britain
A B-47 based at the U.S. airbase at Greenham Common, England, reportedly loaded with a nuclear weapon, caught fire and completely burned. In 1960, signs of high-level radioactive contamination were detected around the base by a group of scientists working at the Atomic Weapons Research Establishment (AWRE). The U.S. government has never confirmed whether the accident involved a nuclear warhead.

Date: March 11, 1958
Location: Florence, South Carolina
On March 11, 1958, at 3:53 p.m. EST, a B-47E departed Hunter AFB, Georgia as number three aircraft in a flight of four en route to an overseas base. After leveling off at 15,000 feet, the aircraft accidentally jettisoned an unarmed nuclear weapon which impacted a sparsely populated area 6 1/2 miles east of Florence, South Carolina. The bomb's high explosive material exploded on impact. The detonation caused property damage and several injuries on the ground. The aircraft returned to base without further incident. No capsule of nuclear materials was aboard the 8-47 or installed in the weapon.

Date: November 4, 1958
Location: Dress AFB, Texas
A B-47 caught fire on take-off. Three crew members successfully ejected; one was killed when the aircraft crashed from an altitude of 1,500 feet. One nuclear weapon was on board when the aircraft crashed. The resultant detonation of the high explosive made a crater 35 feet in diameter and six feet deep. Nuclear materials were recovered near the crash site.

Date: November 26, 1958
Location: Chennault AFB, Louisiana
A B-47 caught fire on the ground. The single nuclear weapon on board was destroyed by the fire. Contamination was limited to the immediate vicinity of the weapon residue within the aircraft wreckage.

Date: January 18, 1959
Location: Pacific Base
The aircraft was parked on a hardstand in a ground-alert configuration. The external load consisted of a weapon on the left intermediate station and three fuel tanks (both inboard stations and the right intermediate station). When the starter button was depressed during a practice alert, an explosion and fire occurred when the external fuel tanks inadvertently jettisoned. Fire trucks at the scene put out the fire in about seven minutes. The capsule was not in the vicinity of the aircraft and was not involved in the accident. There were no contamination or cleanup problems.

Date: July 5, 1959
Location: Barksdale AFB, Louisiana
A C-124 on a nuclear logistics movement mission crashed on take-off. The aircraft was destroyed by fire which also destroyed one weapon. No nuclear or high explosive detonation occurred - safety devices functioned as designed. Limited contamination was present over a very small area immediately below the destroyed weapon. This contamination did not hamper rescue or fire-fighting operations.

Date: September 25. 1959
Off Whidbey Island, Washington
A U.S. Savy P-SM aircraft ditched in Puget Sound off Whidbey Island, Washington. It was carrying an unarmed nuclear antisubmarine weapon containing no nuclear material. The weapon was not recovered.

Date: October 15, 1959
Location: Hardinsburg, Kentucky
The B-52 departed Columbus Air Force Base, Mississippi at 2:30 p.m. CST, October 15, 1959. This aircraft assumed the #2 position in a flight of two. The KC-135 departed Columbus Air Force Base at 5:33 p.m. CST as the 12 tanker aircraft in a flight of two scheduled to refuel the B-52s. Rendezvous for refueling was accomplished in the vicinity of Hardinsburg. Kentucky at 32,000 feet. It was night, the weather was clear, and there was no turbulence. Shortly after the B-52 began refueling from the KC-135, the two aircraft collided. The instructor pilot and pilot of the B-52 ejected, followed by the electronic warfare officer and the radar navigator. The co-pilot, navigator, instructor navigator, and tail gunner failed to leave the B-52. All four crewmembers in the KC-135 were fatally injured, The B-52's two unarmed nuclear weapons were recovered intact. One had been partially burned but this did not result in the dispersion of any nuclear material or other contamination.

1960s

Date: June 7, 1960
Location: McGuire AFB, New Jersey
A BOMARC air defense missile in ready storage condition permitting launch in two minutes) was destroyed by explosion and fire after a high-pressure helium tank exploded and ruptured the missile's fuel tanks. The warhead was also destroyed by the fire although the high explosive did not detonate. Nuclear safety devices acted as designed. Contamination was restricted to an area immediately beneath the weapon and an adjacent elongated area approximately 100 feet long, caused by drain off of firefighting water.

Date: January 24, 1961
Location: Goldsboro, North Carolina
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.

Date: March 14. 1961
Yuba City, California
A B-52 experienced failure of the crew compartment pressurization system forcing descent to 10,000 feet altitude. Increased fuel consumption caused fuel exhaustion before rendezvous with a tanker aircraft. The crew bailed out at 10,000 feet except for the aircraft commander who stayed with the aircraft co 4,000 feet steering the plane away from a populated area. The two nuclear weapons on board were torn from the aircraft on ground impact. The high explosive did not detonate. Safety devices worked as designed and there was no nuclear contamination.

Date: July 4, 1961
Location: North Sea
A cooling system failed, contaminating crew members, missiles, and some parts of a K-19 "Hotel"-class Soviet nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarine off Norway. One of the sub's two reactors soared to 800 degrees Celsius and threatened to melt down the reactor's fuel rods. Several fatalities were reported.

Date: November 13, 1963
Location: Atomic Energy Commission Storage Igloo, Medina Base, Texas
An explosion involving 123,000 pounds of high explosive components of nuclear weapons caused minor injuries to three Atomic Energy Commission employees. There was little contamination from the nuclear components stored elsewhere in the building. The components were from obsolete weapons being disassembled.

Date: January 13, 1964
Location: Cumberland, Maryland
A B-52D was en route from Westover Air Force Base, Massachusetts, to its home base at Turner Air Force Base, Georgia. The crash occurred approximately 17 miles Sw of Cumberland, Maryland. The aircraft was carrying two weapons. Both weapons were in a tactical ferry configuration (no mechanical or electrical connections had been made to the aircraft and the safing switches were in the "SAFE" position). Prior to the crash, the pilot had requested a change of altitude because of severe air turbulence at 29,500 feet. The aircraft was cleared to climb to 33,000 feet. During the climb, the aircraft encountered violent air turbulence and aircraft structural failure subsequently occurred. Of the five aircrew members, only the pilot and co-pilot survived. The gunner and navigator ejected but died of exposure to sub-zero temperatures after successfully reaching the ground. The radar navigator did not eject and died upon aircraft impact. The crash site was an isolated mountainous and wooded area. The site had 14 inches of new snow covering the aircraft wreckage which was scattered over an area of approximately 100 yards square. The weather during the recovery and cleanup operation involved extreme cold and gusty winds. Both weapons remained in the aircraft until it crashed and were relatively intact in the approximate center of the wreckage area.

Date: December 5, 1964
Location: Ellsworth AFB. South Dakota
The LGM 30 Minuteman I missile was on strategic alert at Launch Facility (LF) L-02, Ellsworth AFB, South Dakota. Two airmen were dispatched to the LF to repair the inner zone (IZ) security system. In the midst of their checkout of the IZ system, one retrorocket in the spacer below the Reentry Vehicle (RV) fired, causing the RV to fall about 75 feet to the floor of the silo. When the RV struck the bottom of the silo, the arming and fusing/altitude control subsystem containing the batteries was torn loose, thus removing all sources of power from the RV. The RV Structure received considerable damage. All safety devices operated properly in that they did not sense the proper sequence of events to allow arming the warhead. There was no detonation or radioactive contamination.

Date: December 8, 1964
Location: Bunker Hill (Now Grissom) AFB, Indiana
SAC aircraft were taxiing during an exercise alert. As one 3-58 reached a position directly behind the aircraft on the runway ahead of it, the aircraft ahead brought advanced power. As a result of the combination of the jet blast from the aircraft ahead, the icy runway surface conditions, and the power applied to the aircraft while attempting to turn onto the runway, control was lost and the aircraft slid off the left-hand side of the taxiway. The left main landing gear passed over a flush-mounted taxiway light fixture and 10 feet further along in its travel, grazed the left edge of a concrete light base. Ten feet further, the left main landing gear struck a concrete electrical manhole box, and the aircraft caught on fire. When the aircraft came to rest, all three crew members aboard began abandoning the aircraft. The aircraft commander and defensive systems operator egressed with only minor injuries. The navigator ejected in his escape capsule, which impacted 548 feet from the aircraft. He did not survive. Portions of the five nuclear weapons onboard burned; contamination was limited to the immediate area of the crash and was subsequently removed.

Date: October 11, 1965
Location: Wright-Patterson AFB, Ohio
The aircraft was being refueled in preparation for a routine logistics mission when a fire occurred at the aft end of the refueling trailer. The fuselage of the aircraft, containing only components of nuclear weapons and a dummy training unit, was destroyed by the fire. There were no casualties. The resultant radiation hazard was minimal. Minor contamination was found on the aircraft, cargo, and clothing of explosive ordnance disposal and fire fighting personnel, and was removed by normal cleaning.

Date: December 5, 1965
Location: Pacific Ocean
An A-4E Skyhawk attack aircraft loaded with one B43 nuclear weapon rolled off the deck of the USS Ticonderoga. Pilot, plane, and weapon were never found. The incident occurred more than 500 miles from land.

Date: Mid-1960s (Date undetermined)
Location: Kara Sea
Soviet nuclear-powered icebreaker Lenin was forced to dump its reactors in the Kara Sea. Some accounts said the Lenin experienced a reactor meltdown.

Date: January 17, 1966
Location: Palomares, Spain
The B-52 and the KC-135 collided during a routine high-altitude air refueling operation. Both aircraft crashed near Palomares, Spain. Four of the eleven crew members survived. The B-52 carried four nuclear weapons. One was recovered on the ground, and one was recovered from the sea, on April 7, after extensive search and recovery efforts. Two of the weapons' high explosive materials exploded on impact with the ground, releasing some radioactive materials. Approximately 1400 tons of slightly contaminated soil and vegetation were removed to the United States for storage at an approved site. Representatives of the Spanish government monitored the cleanup operation.

Date: January 21, 1968
Location: Thule, Greenland
A B-52 from Plattsburgh AFB, New York, crashed and burned some seven miles southwest of the runway at Thule AB, Greenland while approaching the base to land. Six of the seven crew members survived. The bomber carried four nuclear weapons, all of which were destroyed by fire. Some radioactive contamination occurred in the area of the crash, which was on the sea ice. Some 237,000 cubic feet of contaminated ice, snow, and water, with crash debris, were, removed to an approved storage site in the United States over the course of a four-month operation. Although an unknown amount of contamination was dispersed by the crash, environmental sampling showed normal readings in the area after the cleanup was completed. Representatives of the Danish government monitored the cleanup operations.

Date: April 11, 1968
Location: Pacific Ocean
A Soviet diesel-powered "Golf"-class ballistic missile submarine sank about 750 miles northwest of the island of Oahu, Hawaii. Reports say the submarine was carrying three nuclear-armed ballistic missiles, as well as several nuclear torpedoes. Part of the submarine was reportedly raised using the CIA's specially constructed "Glomar Explorer" deep-water salvage ship.

Date: Spring 1968
Location: At Sea, Atlantic
Details remain classified.

Date: November 1969
Location: White Sea
The U.S. nuclear-powered submarine Gato reportedly collided with a Soviet submarine on November 14 or 15, 1969, near the entrance of the White Sea.

1970s

Date: April 12, 1970
Location: Atlantic Ocean
A Soviet "November"-class nuclear-powered attack submarine experienced an apparent nuclear propulsion problem in the Atlantic Ocean about 300 miles northwest of Spain. Although an attempt to attach a tow line from a Soviet bloc merchant ship; the submarine apparently sank, killing 52.

Date: November 22, 1975
Location: Off Sicily, Italy
The aircraft carrier USS John F. Kennedy and the cruiser USS Belknap collided in rough seas at night during exercises. Although it was declared as "a possible nuclear weapons accident," no subsequent nuclear contamination was discovered during the fire and rescue operations.

1980s

Date: September 19, 1980
Location: Damascus. Arkansas
During routine maintenance in a Titan II silo, an Air Force repairman dropped a heavy wrench socket, which rolled off a work platform and fell toward the bottom of the silo. The socket bounced and struck the missile, causing a leak from a pressurized fuel tank. The missile complex and the surrounding area were evacuated and a team of specialists was called in from Little Rock Air Force Base, the missile's main support base. About 8 1/2 hours after the initial puncture, fuel vapors within the silo ignited and exploded. The explosion fatally injured one member of the team. Twenty-one other USAR personnel were injured. The missile's re-entry vehicle, which contained a nuclear warhead, was recovered intact. There was no radioactive contamination.

Date: October 3, 1986
Location: Atlantic Ocean
A Soviet "Yankee I"-class nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarine suffered an explosion and fire in one of its missile tubes 480 miles east of Bermuda. The submarine sank while under tow on October 6 in 18,000 feet of water. Two nuclear reactors and approximately 34 nuclear weapons were on board.

Date: April 7, 1989
Location: Atlantic Ocean
About 300 miles north of the Norwegian coast, the Komsomolets, a Soviet nuclear-powered attack submarine, caught fire and sank. The vessel's nuclear reactor, two nuclear-armed torpedoes, and 42 of the 69 crew members were lost.

Date: August 10, 1985
Location: Near Vladivostok, Russia
While at the Chazhma Bay repair facility, about 35 miles from Vladivostok, an "Echo"-class Soviet nuclear-powered submarine suffered a reactor explosion. The explosion released a cloud of radioactivity toward Vladivostok but did not reach the city. Ten officers were killed in the explosion.

1990s

Date: September 27, 1991
Location: White Sea
A missile launch malfunction occurred during a test launch on a "Typhoon"-class nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarine.

Date: March 20, 1993
Location: Barents Sea
The U.S. nuclear-powered submarine Grayling collided with a Russian Delta III nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarine. Both vessels reportedly suffered only minor damage.

Date: February 11, 1992
Location: Barents Sea
A collision between a CIS (Commonwealth of Independent States) "Sierra"-class nuclear-powered attack submarine with the U.S. nuclear-powered attack submarine Baton Rouge. Both vessels reportedly suffered only minor damage. There is a dispute over the location of the incident in or outside Russian territorial waters.

2000s

Date: August 12, 2000
Location: Barents Sea
The CIS (Commonwealth of Independent States) "Oscar II" class submarine, Kursk, sinks after a massive onboard explosion. Attempts to rescue the 118 men fail. It is thought that a torpedo failure caused the accident. Radiation levels are normal and the submarine had no nuclear weapons on board.


Sources:
U.S. Defense Department
Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament
National Security Archive
Greenpeace
Joshua Handler, Princeton University
United Press International
The Associated Press
Blind Man's Bluff : The Untold Story of American Submarine Espionage