A Near Miss – And How Many More Unreported?

Date: Early ’60s

Place: An Air Force Base nuclear weapons maintenance facility on an island in the Caribbean

Author: Don Chapin, Capt., USAF, ret’d

Introduction

At this time, long after the cold war has ended, we are now hearing about some of the various operational situations, both American and Russian, where we have been just seconds away from missile launches because of radar “bogies” or false electronic information. No one has mentioned the fact that everyday life at the technical level around nuclear weapons can also be a problem.

As an electronics technician in the special weapons field (which it was called at the time) in USAF’s Strategic Air Command (SAC), I have run across and heard of a number of near misses of nuclear-related “incidences” in the field (some of which are documented). But, this one in which I was personally involved was, by far, the worst of those incidences of which I have direct knowledge. Yet, considering the circumstances, I would strongly suspect that it was/is not an isolated situation. While there (hopefully) have been advances in technology and operational support to preclude repeat situations of this magnitude, considering the spin that has become typical for political purposes, apparently including within the military, I would hesitate to accept any assurances that situations such as the following could not be repeated to some extent.

The Incident

A Near Miss, featured image of a nuclear weapon as featured image for Don Chapin's post

Technical details are available here.

There were three of us in the maintenance building: a senior master sergeant (the NCOIC) in the front office, a SSGT technician in the south maintenance bay doing a Final Assembly Test (FAT) on a thermonuclear weapon which had about 180 (to 500, depending upon information source) times the capability of the Nagasaki bomb (about 20KT). I was in the center bay, working on spares inventories.

Suddenly, the SSGT burst through the maintenance door, yelling, “RUN, IT’S TICKING.”

The three of us ran out the front door and, knowing we didn’t have the time to get any further, we tried “covering up” in a shallow ditch across the road from the facility. We had NO idea what was going on inside the weapon… whether it might go full TN (thermonuclear) capability (in which case we and some of the base would be vaporized, and the island a full-scale disaster area, far worse than Nagasaki), full HE (high explosive, without the atomic-TN chain going), or low-order HE with just some of the explosive going off, in which case we MIGHT live through it.

There were seven critical “switches” in this particular weapon, some for safety but most for operational applications, and I could visually place each of them as I had given classes on that fuzing and firing circuit to our other technicians. (Yes, “fuzing” is the correct spelling)

After about five minutes – the longest minutes in my life – we decided that it wasn’t going to blow in any of those modes, so we (very weakly) crawled out of that ditch to reenter the building and initiate the necessary reporting. It was then that the SSGT, who had been acting in the capacity of a technician, related what had happened.

During the FAT, using the T-138 portable test set with a rotary selector switch for specific functions, the sequence for this weapon was to plug both test cables into the top receptacles and go through specific test steps. The cables were then pulled from the top receptacles and one of them plugged into the side receptacle for an additional set of tests. This cable was then extracted from the side receptacle and both cables then re-inserted into the top receptacles for the last test steps.

However, in this case, the SSGT, “in order to save a little time,” left the second cable in the top receptacle when he pulled one cable from the top and plugged it into the side receptacle… a very clear checklist procedure violation. Then, when he rotated the tester selector switch, he heard “strange noises” inside the weapon, whereupon he rapidly exited the maintenance bay and shouted the warning.

Naturally, even though we could have torn the weapon apart to do our own postmortem, we were not “qualified” to do so and had to send the weapon back to Albuquerque, NM, for the tear-down and analysis.

Several weeks later we received a very abbreviated result – of the seven critical “switches,” in the weapon, six had “fired,” in sequence, for a full thermonuclear surface burst. Therefore, only one “operational” switch had not closed and that was simply because it was normally pre-set to a position where it was up to the orders received by the aircrew, immediately prior to “delivery,” as to where it was to be positioned. That was how close we were to a very major disaster. (Ref. the 1961 Goldsboro, NC incident)

Just a couple weeks after the results of that weapon tear-down was announced, the Strategic Air Command (SAC) initiated their well-known SAC Two-Man Policy for nuclear weapon access: (paraphrased) ANY time there is a human presence around a weapon there had to be at least a second person there as well, of equal knowledge with respect to weapon operation. The theory was that this would preclude another incident such as that with which we were involved. This policy has long since morphed into the USAF no-lone-zone policy, Air Force Instruction 91-104 and AFPD 91-1, Nuclear Weapons and Systems Surety, now addressed as the more PC Two Person Policy.

Speculations:

Now, if that weapon had gone off, who would have realized that it had happened because of somebody not following a checklist and that there was no intentional sabotage or “enemy action” that required a retaliatory response?

Getting back to the global stage, what about these other countries that are developing a similar capability? Where are they going to get the reliable personnel to properly maintain their stockpile(s)? What would happen if one of their weapons went off in a similar manner? Without traceability, who would be blamed?

– – – – – – –

It should be noted that neither this “incident,” nor a B-47 crash-and-burn at Whiteman AFB in the late ’50s (when I was stationed there, and very similar to the Lakenheath AB, England, incident in ’56) are listed in the List Of Military Nuclear Accidents at  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_military_nuclear_accidents, http://www.lutins.org/nukes.html.

The full aircrew was also lost in the Whiteman crash (they were burned alive), because the fire department was so concerned about the potential of a large explosion with a Mk6/Mod6 on board. How many other “Broken Arrow” incidents have never made it into public records? MANY!!! Why??? The military branches don’t want this publicized!!

– – – – – – –

January 24, 1961, Goldsboro, North Carolina

[more info here, too] [more info]
In what nearly became a nuclear catastrophe, a B-52 bomber on airborne alert carrying two nuclear weapons broke apart in midair. The B-52 experienced structural failure in its right wing and the aircraft’s resulting breakup released the two weapons from a height of 2,000-10,000 feet. One of the bomb’s parachutes deployed properly and that weapon’s damage was minimal. However, the second bomb’s parachute malfunctioned and the weapon broke apart upon impact, scattering its components over a wide area. According to Daniel Ellsberg, the weapon could have accidentally fired because “five of the six safety devices had failed.” Nuclear physicist Ralph E. Lapp supported this assertion, saying that “only a single switch” had “prevented the bomb from detonating and spreading fire and destruction over a wide area.” (SAME AS THE RAMEY AFB INCIDENT!)

– – – – – – –

Lakenheath Air Base, Suffolk, England – July 27, 1956

[more info, and a Wikipedia mention on this page]

A B-47 bomber crashed at Lakenheath Airbase in Suffolk, England. While the bomber carried no nuclear weapons, it hit a concrete nuclear weapons storage bunker known as the “igloo,” where three U.S. Mark VI nuclear bombs — the same type of bomb dropped on Nagasaki — were stored. In the collision, three of the bombs sustained damage that could have resulted in detonation. In explaining the accident, Gen. James Walsh, commanding officer of the U.S. 7th Air Division in England, sent a brief cable to Gen. Curtis LeMay, commander of the U.S. Strategic Air Command. “Aircraft then exploded, showering burning fuel over all. Crew perished. … Preliminary exam by bomb disposal officer says a miracle that one Mark Six with exposed detonators sheared didn’t go.”
(SAME AS THE WHITEMAN AFB INCIDENT!)

– – – – – – –

Personnel Selections:

USAF enlisted personnel assigned to the special weapons field were initially in the 96-98th percentile group of all enlistees, had a minimum of a high school diploma and, preferably, already had some degree of electronics knowledge. However, such selection criteria, obviously, does not preclude anyone in that group from accomplishing a normal, human, d _ _ b-a _ _ action. I do not remember the background of the SSGT technician responsible for this incident, but I believe he was one of the “old heads” in that particular field.

However, in the time I was in that field, I saw it being rapidly “watered down” with higher ranking enlisted personnel that had no concept of what it meant to have to “stay current” with technical manuals that were written at the 5th-year college level or higher (example, the above-mentioned senior master sergeant, who also had many psychological problems). When I had only two, then three stripes, I often had the responsibility of “training” a senior NCO that wanted to cross-train into the field, often because of the “prestige,” but who had no interest in listening to someone of a junior rank, nor had the capability of deciphering those tech manuals. The obvious implications are…

==============================================================

And about 30 years later??

from: https://onkruit.sarava.org/axies/lessons.html#12 – 717 MUNSS NUCLEAR SURETY WEAPONS SAFETY LESSON PLAN, Revised 10 Nov 94, Volkel AB (Since deleted and absorbed into AIR FORCE INSTRUCTION 91-101. At one time there was a plethora of nuclear incidents noted on line, but the DoD has killed them all with very few references left, such as “Taking Stock, Worldwide Nuclear Deployments 1998.”

LESSONS LEARNED

It is important that we learn from our past mistakes. Here are some examples of past accidents/incidents and how we have learned from them.

PRP – An individual was given very strong medication but wasn’t taken off PRP. He reported to work the next day very “high” from his new pain killers and failed to inform anyone. This condition went undetected by fellow workers and supervisors. While performing his duties he caused major damage to a weapon system because he was just too drugged up to pay attention. This could have been prevented very easily. The person giving the medication should have annotated his medical records and notified someone in the individual’s chain of command. His co-workers should have detected his unreliable condition. This must never be allowed to happen again.

I remember a situation where one of our mechanics, who was renowned for his tractor and tug skills in handling nukes in and out of the revetments, one day simply couldn’t seem to get anything right, banging the weapons and carriages around to the extent that we became quite worried. Asking him what his problem was, he simply replied that this was the first day in over a year that he had come to work sober!

Tech Data – A Weapon Loading crew was conducting a loading operation when they failed to closely follow the specific technical data. A weapon was subsequently incorrectly hung and later fell on the runway, cracking the case. There is no excuse for not using tech data. This accident could have had international repercussions. We were lucky. People need to be aware of the awesome responsibility they have, no matter what their job is. Everyone has a role.

Here we go again! If this had been a MK 5 or 6 series, that facility could have instantaneously had some real trouble!

It has happened before and it can happen again. Please, don’t be the one who makes the fatal mistake due to carelessness.

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