There is nothing routine about flying an aircraft loaded with four hydrogen bombs, each of which is a hundred times more powerful than the bomb which obliterated Hiroshima.
But for the seven crew members of the B-52 Stratofortress that took off from Seymour Johnson Air Force base in North Carolina almost exactly 50 years ago, on January 16, 1966, this was very much business as usual.
Their mission was part of a huge operation called Chrome Dome, which had been running for six years and was a vital part of the United States’ nuclear capability.
In order to provide the superpower with the constant ability to retaliate in the event of a Soviet atomic strike, bombers were continually flown on 24-hour missions all the way across the Atlantic to the east coast of Italy, before turning back to the States.
This meant that if the President gave the order to strike the Soviet Union, the bombers could swiftly reach the targets over which they could unload their apocalyptic cargoes.
Piloting the B-52 that day was 29-year-old Charles J. Wendorf, who, despite his relative youth, had been flying the bombers for well over five years. He was a father-of-three, and that morning his wife Bette had warned him that she had a bad feeling about the flight.
Bette begged him not to go. Wendorf told her that orders were orders: he had no choice.
Because of the length of the mission, the B-52 had to be refuelled in the air four times. After turning around over the Adriatic, the plane headed back to her third refuelling point, where she would link up with a huge KC-135 Stratotanker at 31,000 feet above south-eastern Spain.
Just before 10.30 am on January 17, the planes made their rendezvous. With the two aircraft flying at nearly 500 mph, the refuelling procedure was tricky, but the crews were experienced. At the time, Wendorf was taking a break and the B-52 was being flown by Major Larry G. Messinger, one of the two co-pilots.
The operation involved lining up the bomber’s receiving receptacle with a fuel boom being trailed by the KC-135. The tanker’s boom operator noticed that the B-52 was approaching a little fast.
‘Watch your enclosure,’ the operator calmly told the crew of the B-52 by way of warning. If the operator thought the situation was perilous, he would have ordered the bomber to break away, but no such order came.
‘We didn’t see anything dangerous about the situation,’ Messinger recalled. ‘But all of a sudden, all hell seemed to break loose.’
Hell was the right word: the B-52 had overshot and the boom had missed the fuel nozzle in the top of the plane. Instead, the boom had smashed into the bomber with such force that its left wing was ripped off.
Fire quickly spread up the fuel-filled boom and ignited all 30,000 gallons of the tanker’s kerosene, causing it to plummet to the ground. Meanwhile, the bomber started to break up, and the crew did their best to get out of the plane using parachutes.
As for the hydrogen bombs, there was nothing that could be done. In less than two minutes, they would be crashing into the Earth at an enormous speed — potentially destroying much of the regions of Andalucia and Murcia.
Hundreds of thousands of people could be about to die, and the nuclear fallout would have the capacity to kill millions more all over Europe — not just from radiation poisoning but from cancers for decades to come.
Half a century on, we all know that several thousand square miles of Spain were not actually destroyed by a devastating series of thermonuclear explosions. Had such a horrific disaster taken place, then the history of the past 50 years would have been very different.
Yet this is a story which has all-too-current echoes, given that just a few days ago North Korea claimed to have successfully tested its own hydrogen bomb.
That boast caused consternation around the world, and there is little doubt that if Kim Jong-un found himself at war with the West, he would love to drop such a devastating weapon on Europe.
How chilling to discover, then, that such a scenario did almost happen five decades ago. And the danger was all too real.
The nuclear payloads of the four American B28 hydrogen bombs mercifully did not detonate when they landed, even though the conventional explosives in two of the bombs did explode, showering some 500 acres around the fishing village of Palomares with three kilograms of highly radioactive plutonium-239.
Despite attempts made at the time by the Americans to clean up the mess, the crash that Monday morning 50 years ago still has ramifications today.
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