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 51 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.
Just last October, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry agreed to finalise a deal with the Spanish Foreign Minister that calls upon the U.S. to remove and dispose of some 50,000 cubic metres of earth that remains contaminated.
This raises some awkward questions for the United States, many of which have a direct bearing on the 1,600 inhabitants of Palomares, at least half of whom are British expatriates. In particular, why have the Americans taken so long to clean up the fallout?
As soon as the crash took place, the residents of Palomares found themselves bombarded with huge scraps of flaming metal. In the words of one five-year-old girl, the sky was ‘raining fire’.
In his elementary school, teacher José Molinero told his pupils to stay inside. A piece of the bomber’s landing gear had smashed down just 80 yards away.
Others had similarly near misses, not least 83-year-old Pedro de la Torre Flores, who was standing with two of his great-nephews that day. One of the four hydrogen bombs fell right in front of them — and blew up.
It was Pedro’s lucky day, though, because the explosion was not a full-scale thermonuclear blast but the detonation of the bomb’s conventional payload. Although Pedro and his nephews were knocked over, they were not vaporised.
So why did the bomb not explode? The reason is because it had not been armed by the crew, which meant that the electrical circuits required to bring about a full explosion had not been activated. The conventional explosives in hydrogen bombs such as the B28 have to be detonated in a certain sequence in order to bring about the fission of the bomb’s uranium and plutonium, and then the subsequent fusion of the hydrogen atoms that really gives the bomb its terrifying power.
Therefore, when an unarmed nuclear bomb’s conventional payload detonates, the effect is not nuclear armageddon but that of a ‘dirty bomb’ — a conventional explosive that spreads toxic radioactive substances.
Of course, neither Pedro nor his great-nephews were to know all this science, let alone whether the bombs were even nuclear.
Soon after the bomb had landed, the father of one of Pedro’s great-nephews started trying to kick out a ring of fire that surrounded it, and even accidentally kicked the bomb.
It was at this point that his wife Luisa ran out of their house and admonished her husband in what must have been the greatest understatement of the Cold War: ‘What in the name of God are doing, Pepé? Get away from there! This could be dangerous.’
What of the remaining three bombs? Miraculously, not one of them caused any damage to people or property. The second bomb also detonated, although only half of its conventional explosives blew up. The third landed in a dried river bed without exploding, and the fourth fell six miles out to sea.
Still more fortunate, the parachutes on the bombs had failed, which meant they fell with such force that they were largely buried when they detonated, so only a relatively small amount of radioactive plutonium was blown around.
Better still, a breeze took the radioactive particles away from Palomares. No wonder that the village priest said ‘the hand of God’ was at work.
Divine intervention may have spared Palomares, but it was less merciful when dealing with the crews of the two aircraft.
The four men on board the tanker met a gruesome death, and were likely to have been burned alive before the plane eventually exploded in a huge fireball at 1,600 feet.
Those on the B-52 fared somewhat better. Four of the crew, including Captain Wendorf, managed to parachute to safety, and three were rescued from the sea. The fourth, Captain Ivens Buchanan, fell on land near Palomares, although he was still strapped to his ejector seat, and suffered severe burns and a broken shoulder.
The remaining few members of the crew were unable to get out of the disintegrating plane.
Within minutes of the crash, the United States Air Force cabled the Pentagon and the White House situations room with the code name denoting the loss of a nuclear warhead: Broken Arrow. While President Lyndon Johnson was kept informed, a Disaster Control Team from the U.S. base at Torrejon was rushed to Palomares, and arrived there that afternoon to hunt for the bombs.
Three bombs were located and removed within 24 hours, but the Americans would have a greater problem with the fourth, which was lying 2,500 feet below the surface of the Mediterranean.
What happened next was a farrago of errors. It took the U.S. Navy nearly three months to find the bomb, and when they finally started to haul it to the surface, the weapon was dropped and fell a further 500 ft down. Then, a submarine got tangled up in the bomb’s parachute lines and was almost lost. Finally, by the middle of April, the bomb was hoisted from the water.
During the recovery period, the U.S. and Spanish governments handled the understandable public anxiety in the utterly inept way at which officialdom excels. Statements ranged from straight denials that there were nuclear weapons involved, to an acknowledgement that there may have been, and finally to a reluctant, sheepish confession.
The two governments also remained tight-lipped as to whether the residents of Palomares had been affected by radiation. Certainly, urine samples at the time showed that the population had breathed in only minute amounts of plutonium particles, and it was considered that nobody required any special attention or treatment.
However, a greater problem lay with the ground over which the particles had been blown. To its credit, the United States removed nearly 5,000 barrels of radioactive soil for burial at the Atomic Energy Commission headquarters in Charleston, South Carolina, and farmers were compensated for tomato crops that had been affected.
Yet despite the American efforts to eradicate the radioactivity, many residents remain unconvinced that they are safe. According to one report, around 50 villagers are still carrying plutonium in their bodies, and there is anecdotal evidence that, after the incident, many villagers died of cancers relatively young. Unfortunately, there is now no way of confirming this, as all the medical records were suppressed and destroyed by the fascist authorities of General Franco.