Watch American Troops Pick Over a B-52 Crash Site
1961 California accident involved nuclear-armed bomber
On March 14, 1961, Lt. Col. Schuyler, the chief of the Joint Nuclear Accident Coordination Center in Albuquerque, New Mexico received a troubling phone call.
One of the Air Force’s massive B-52F Stratofortress bombers had crashed and burned in a field southwest of Yuba City, California. Then there was the really bad news … there were live nuclear bombs on board.
“Somehow the B-52 went out of control,” Lt. Col. Sweetnam of the Strategic Air Command told Schuyler. “The aircraft commander notified control room that they were bailing out and there has been a report that the aircraft was burning.”
This phone call is available in an unclassified official transcript, which does not include the first names of any of the officers. Now more than a half-century later, we have newly declassified film footage of the recovery effort, which independent website GovernmentAttic.org posted online.
After a 15-year review by the Interagency Security Classification Appeals Panel and the Department of Energy, the National Archives released the video to a private individual in October.
The entirely silent movie is more than 14 minutes long and has mixed shots of debris, troops picking over the wreckage and taking radiation readings, officers discussing the situation and aerial views of the crash site. Censors removed certain portions, citing privacy concerns.
At top – A KC-135 refuels a B-52. Above and below – Scenes from the 1961 crash in Yuba. Dept. of Energy photos
Despite the danger, the entire scene appears to have been calm. Airmen leisurely walk through the B-52’s remains. Officers gather right out in the open and in an impromptu command post.
No one is wearing protective gear – some aren’t even wearing gloves as they inspect bits of the plane. Near the end, we spotted civilian cars driving on a nearby road as the film crew flies over scene. Despite the lack of commentary, the video is an interesting window into how the military treated these accidents in the early decades of the Cold War.
To be fair, the relaxed atmosphere doesn’t mean the situation wasn’t deadly serious. The Air Force lost another B-52 over Goldsboro, North Carolina less than two months earlier. In that incident, two Mark 39 hydrogen bombs ejected from the plane.
Engineers from the Atomic Energy Commission discovered that one of the two Mark 39 hydrogen bombs armed itself by deploying its parachute during the fall over Goldsboro, according to one review.
Thankfully, those bombs didn’t explode. The bomb that armed itself had a faulty arming switch which prevented it from detonating. A stroke of luck stopped an explosion equivalent to nearly four million tons of TNT.
Back in Yuba, the military officers immediately recalled Goldsboro. “We had another North Carolina type incident,” Sweetnam said to Schuyler, the JNACC chief.
Run by the Pentagon and the Department of Energy, JNACC is still one of the primary points of contact during any sort of nuclear disaster.
At least some officials would have known about the danger of another Goldsboro. They no doubt breathed a collective sigh of relief when reports came in that no mushroom cloud was blooming over Yuba’s farmlands.
But just what had happened wasn’t entirely clear. “I think we probably get better information from you than from the Air Force Command Post here because they seem to get garbled poop,” U.S. Army Lt. Col. Charlton remarked to Schuyler soon after the accident.
We do know what happened to the bomber. Twenty minutes after the B-52 left Mather Air Force Base outside of Sacramento, the pilot called in to complain of hot air spilling into the cockpit. The crew couldn’t get the heat to stop, but continued on anyways.
After nearly seven hours, officials at Mather told the crew to bring the bomber back to base if the situation became too uncomfortable. After nearly 14 hours, the heat became intense enough to apparently blow out a cockpit window.
Faced with the loss of cabin pressure — and the crew beginning to feel ill — the pilot decided to bring the lumbering aircraft down to 12,000 feet where the air would be breathable. In spite of all this, the Mather control tower ordered them to continue their mission.
Air Force KC-135 tankers had refueled the plane twice over the course of the mission. Nearly 22 hours into the flight, the crew reported that their fuel gauge appeared jammed and they didn’t know how much gas was left in the tanks.
The flying branch scrambled another aerial refueler to save the now obviously stricken airplane. Less than an hour after the refueling order, the bomber lost power and the crew bailed out. They were two miles away from the tanker when they abandoned the aircraft.
In 2012, retired Air Force B-52 pilot Lt. Col. Earl McGill argued in his book Jet Age Man: SAC B-47 and B-52 Operations in the Early Cold War that the crew did not take on enough fuel earlier in the flight and otherwise misread the situation.
McGill further suggested that sleep deprivation during the mission – scheduled to last 24 hours – and dexedrine, a stimulant, played a role in their decisions.
All eight crewmembers survived. Emergency teams took two to Fremont Hospital in Yuba and the Air Force choppered three more to Beale Air Force Base for medical treatment. At least two crewmembers had broken legs. The only fatality occurred when a fireman from Beale died in a crash while racing to the scene.
Two nuclear bombs were badly beat up. While they didn’t explode, the crash had broken them into pieces and scattered them throughout the crash site.
“The significant things that I think that anyone would be interested in here is that the Savanna [sic] River item is missing,” Mr. White, an Atomic Energy Commission representative on the scene, reported to JNACC.
“They can’t find it.”
The Savannah River Site and associated national laboratory produced plutonium and worked on nuclear weapons during the Cold War. The “item” in question could have been part of the weapon’s atomic warhead.
“Unit 2 is in worse shape in some respects,” White added. The force of the impact had scattered the bomb’s conventional high explosives — needed to jump start the nuclear explosion — over a 200 square foot area.
“This is an undesirable condition,” White said, stating the obvious. Portions of the video depict troops looking over various portions of the weapons. Teams eventually found the critical “items” from both bombs.
The Pentagon and Atomic Energy Commission cleaned up the site. The Air Force continued flying routine missions toting atomic weapons. But by the end of the decade, three more nuclear armed B-52s would crash around the world. The flying branch stopped the nuclear deterrence missions after a crash near Thule Air Base in Greenland led to serious nuclear contamination and required an extensive cleanup operation.
And while the Yuba incident has largely faded from public consciousness, overshadowed by Goldsboro and Thule, we can now take a look back at the events from a new perspective.