Tag Archives: Aircraft Accident

3 February 1959: “The Day the Music Died”

Buddy Holly
Buddy Holly

3 February 1959: In the late 1950s, “rock and roll” music was becoming increasingly popular in America. Buddy Holly (Charles Hardin Holley) was among the most famous rock and roll singers.

While on a concert tour, Holly, formerly of the band The Crickets, chartered a small airplane from Dwyer Flying Service to fly himself and two other performers to Fargo, North Dakota, for the following night’s event.

After the performance at the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, Iowa, ended, Holly, Ritchie Valens (Richard Steven Valenzuela) and “The Big Bopper,” (Jiles Perry Richardson, Jr.) were driven to the nearby Mason City Municipal Airport (MCW), arriving at 12:40 a.m., Central Standard Time (0640 UTC). They were met by their assigned pilot, Roger Arthur Peterson, and boarded the chartered airplane. They took off at 12:55 a.m. CST (0655 UTC).

Richard Steven Valenzuela. (Unattributed)
Richard Steven Valenzuela. (Unattributed)

During the previous eight hours, Roger Peterson had telephoned the Air Traffic Communications Service three times for the weather forecast along his planned route. He was informed that weather was VFR, with ceilings of 4,200 feet (1,280 meters) or higher and visibility 10 miles (16 kilometers) or more.

ATCS did NOT inform Peterson of a “Flash Advisory” of a 100-mile-wide (160 kilometers) band of snow moving into the area at 25 knots (13 meters per second). Moderate to heavy icing conditions were present along with winds of 30 to 50 knots (15 to 26 feet per second).

"The Big Bopper," Jiles P. Richardson, Jr. (Unattributed)
“The Big Bopper,” Jiles Perry Richardson, Jr. (Unattributed)

While taxiing to the runway, the pilot once again radioed ATCS for the weather. It was now reported as: ceiling 3,000 feet (914 meters), sky obscured, visibility 6 miles (10 kilometers) in light snow, and wind gusting 20 to 30 knots (10 to 15 meters per second).

After a normal takeoff, the airplane climbed to approximately 800 feet (244 meters) and made a left 180° turn. It passed the airport heading northwest.

The charter service’s owner, Hubert Dwyer, watched the departure from the airport’s tower. He was able to see the airplane’s navigation lights until it was about five miles (8 kilometers) away, then it slowly descended out of sight.

When Peterson activated his flight plan by radio after taking off, as was expected, Dwyer asked the ATCS to try to contact him. No contact was established. The airplane and its passengers never arrived at the destination.

After sunrise, Dwyer began an air search for the missing airplane. At 09:35 a.m., he located the crashed airplane in a farm field approximately 5 miles northwest of the airport. The airplane was destroyed and all four occupants were dead. There was about 4 inches (10 centimeters) of snow on the ground.

Roger Arthur Peterson

The pilot, Roger A. Peterson, was 21 years old and had been issued a commercial pilot’s certificate with an airplane–single-engine land rating, in April 1958. He was also a certified flight instructor. He had flown 711 flight hours during the nearly five years he had been flying. He had worked for Dwyer for a year.

Peterson had acquired 52 hours of instrument flight training and had passed the written test for the rating, but had failed an instrument flight check the previous year. He had 128 hours in the airplane type, but none of his instrument flight training had been in this aircraft.

Peterson was born at Alta, Iowa, 24 May 1937. He was the first of four children of Arthur Erland Peterson, a farmer, and Pearl I. Kraemer Peterson. He attended Fairview Consolidated School and graduated in 1954. Peterson married Miss DeAnn Lenz, a former classmate, at the Saint Paul Lutheran Church in Alta, 14 September 1958.

Roger Arthur Peterson is buried at the Buena Vista Memorial Cemetery, Storm Lake, Iowa.

N3794N was well-equipped for instrument flight. The attitude indicator, a Sperry Gyroscope Company, Inc., F-3 Attitude Gyro, however, displayed pitch attitude in a way that was different than the indicators used in the airplanes in which Peterson had taken instrument flight instruction.

This magazine advertisement depicts the Sperry F-3 Attitude Gyro. (Vintage Ad Service)
This contemporary magazine advertisement depicts the Sperry F-3 Attitude Gyro. (Vintage Ad Service)

The Civil Aeronautics Board (predecessor of the Federal Aviation Administration) investigated the accident. There was no indication of an engine malfunction or of structural failure of the aircraft.

Investigators concluded that as Peterson flew away from the airport he entered an area of total darkness, unable to see anything which would give him a visual cue of the airplane’s flight attitude. The unfamiliar attitude indicator may have confused him. He quickly became spatially disoriented and lost control of the Bonanza.

N3794N impacted the ground in a 90° right bank with a nose down pitch angle, on a heading of 315°. The right wing broke off and parts of the airplane were scattered as far as 540 feet (165 meters). The three passengers were thrown from the wreckage.

The airspeed indicator needle was stuck between 165 and 170 knots (190–196 miles per hour/306–315 kilometers per hour) and the rate of climb indicator was stuck showing a 3,000 foot-per-minute (15 meters per second) rate of descent. The tachometer was stuck at 2,200 r.p.m.

This Beechcraft Model 35 Bonanza, N3851N, is the same type aircraft in which Buddy Hooly, Ritchie Valens and The Big Bopper were killed, 3 February 1959. (Unattributed)
This 1947 Beechcraft Model 35 Bonanza, serial number D-1089, N3851N, is the same type aircraft in which Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and The Big Bopper were killed, 3 February 1959. (Unattributed)

The airplane was a 1947 Beechcraft 35 Bonanza, civil registration N3794N, serial number D-1019. It was a single-engine, four-place, all-metal light airplane with retractable landing gear. The Model 35 had the distinctive V-tail which combined the functions of a conventional vertical fin and rudder, and horizontal tail plane and elevators.

N3794N was completed at Wichita, Kansas, 17 October 1947 and it had accumulated 2,154 flight hours over the previous twelve years. The airplane’s engine had been overhauled 40 hours before the accident.

The Model 35 was 25 feet, 2 inches (7.671 meters) long with a wingspan of 32 feet, 10 inches (10.008 meters) and height of 6 feet, 7 inches (2.007 meters). It had an empty weight of 1,458 pounds (661 kilograms) and gross weight of 2,550 pounds (1,157 kilograms).

N3794N was powered by an air-cooled, normally-aspirated, 471.24-cubic-inch-displacement (7.72 liter) Continental Motors, Inc., E185-8 horizontally-opposed 6-cylinder engine with a compression ratio of 7:1. This was a direct-drive engine which turned a two-bladed, electrically-controlled, Beechcraft R-203-100 variable-pitch propeller with a diameter of 7 feet, 4 inches (2.235 meters), constructed of laminated birch. The engine had a maximum continuous power rating of 185 horsepower at 2,300 r.p.m., at Sea Level, and  205 horsepower at 2,600 r.p.m. (five minute limit) for takeoff. It required 80/87-octane aviation gasoline and had an expected overhaul interval of 1,500 hours. The E-185-8 had a dry weight of 344 pounds (156 kilograms).

The “V-tail Bonanza” had a maximum speed of 184 miles per hour (296 kilometers per hour) at Sea Level, and a cruise speed of 175 miles per hour ( 282 kilometers per hour)at 10,000 feet (3,048 meters). Its service ceiling was 18,000 feet (5,486 meters).

With full fuel, 40 gallons (151.4 liters), the airplane had a range of 750 miles (1,207 kilometers).

The Beechcraft Model 35 Bonanza was in production from 1947 to 1982. More than 17,000 Model 35s and the similar Model 36 were built.

Destroyed Beechcraft Model 35 Bonanza, N3794N, 3 February 1959.
Wreck of Beechcraft Model 35 Bonanza N3794N, 3 February 1959.

© 2017, Bryan R. Swopes

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2 February 1970

Convair F-106A Delta Dart of the 71st Fighter Interceptor Squadron, with a Boeing KC-135 Stratotanker, circa 1970. (U.S. Air Force)
Convair F-106A-100-CO Delta Dart 58-0775 of the 71st Fighter Interceptor Squadron with a Boeing KC-135 Stratotanker, circa 1970. This is the same type aircraft flown by Lieutenant Gary Foust, 2 February 1970. (U.S. Air Force)
1st Lt. Gary E. Foust

2 February 1970: At approximately 9:50 a.m., three Convair F-106A Delta Dart supersonic interceptors of the 71st Fighter Interceptor Squadron, 24th Air Division, based at Malmstrom Air Force Base, Montana, were engaged in an air combat training mission.

1st Lieutenant Gary Eugene Foust was flying F-106A-100-CO 58-0787, an airplane usually flown by the squadron’s maintenance officer, Major Wolford.

During the simulated combat, Lt. Foust entered into a vertical climb with his “opponent,” Captain Tom Curtis, who was also flying an F-106, and they both climbed to about 38,000 feet (11,600 meters) while using a “vertical rolling scissors” maneuver as each tried to get into a position of advantage.

Diagram of Vertical Rolling Scissors Maneuver, (Predrag Pavlovic, dipl. ing. and Nenad Pavlovic, dipl. ing.)
Diagram of Vertical Rolling Scissors Maneuver. (Predrag Pavlovic, dipl. ing. and Nenad Pavlovic, dipl. ing.)

Lt. Foust’s interceptor stalled and went in to a flat spin. Captain Curtiss described it: “The aircraft looked like the pitot tube was stationary with the aircraft rotating around it. Very flat and rotating quite slowly.”

Foust tried all the recovery procedures but could not regain control of the Delta Dart. With no options remaining, at about 15,000 feet (4,572 meters), Foust ejected from the apparently doomed airplane.

This F-106A (S/N 58-0787) was involved in an unusual incident. During a training mission, it entered an flat spin forcing the pilot to eject. Unpiloted, the aircraft recovered on its own and miraculously made a gentle belly landing in a snow-covered field. (U.S. Air Force photo)
Convair F-106A Delta Dart 58-0787 made an un-piloted belly landing onto a snow-covered farm field near Big Sandy, Montana, 2 February 1970. (U.S. Air Force)

After the pilot ejected, the F-106 came out of the spin and leveled off.  With its engine still running, -787 continued flying, gradually descending, until it slid in to a landing in a wheat field near Big Sandy, Montana. Eventually the airplane ran out of fuel and the engine stopped at about 12:15 p.m.

Lieutenant Foust safely parachuted into the mountains and was soon rescued.

58-0787 was partially disassembled by a maintenance team from Hill Air Force Base, Utah, and loaded on to a rail car. It was then transported to the Sacramento Air Logistics Center at McClellan Air Force Base, Sacramento, California, where it was repaired and eventually returned to flight status with the 49th Fighter Interceptor Squadron, 21st Air Division, at Griffiss Air Force Base, New York.

After the Convair Delta Dart was retired from active service, 58-0787 was sent to the National Museum of the United States Air Force, Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio.

This F-106A (S/N 58-0787) was involved in an unusual incident. During a training mission, it entered an flat spin forcing the pilot to eject. Unpiloted, the aircraft recovered on its own and miraculously made a gentle belly landing in a snow-covered field. (U.S. Air Force photo)
Convair F-106A Delta Dart 58-0787 sits in a snow-covered Montana farm field, February 1970. (U.S. Air Force)

The Convair F-106A Delta Dart was the primary all-weather interceptor of the United States Air Force from 1959 to 1988, when it was withdrawn from service with the Air National Guard. It was a single-seat, single-engine delta-winged aircraft capable of speeds above Mach 2.

The airplane was a development of the earlier F-102A Delta Dagger, and was initially designated F-102B. However, so many changes were made that it was considered to be a new aircraft.

The F-106A is 70 feet, 8.78 inches (21.559 meters) long with a wingspan of 38 feet, 3.5 inches (11.671 meters). The total area of the delta wing is 697.83 square feet (64.83 square meters). The angle of incidence was 0° and there was no dihedral. The leading edges were swept aft 60°. The top of the vertical fin was 20 feet, 3.3 inches (6.180 meters) high. The Delta Dart weighs 23,646 pounds (10,726 kilograms) empty, and has a maximum takeoff weight (MTOW) of 38,729 pounds (17,567 kilograms).

Convair F-106A Delta Dart three-view illustration with dimensions. (SDASM)

The F-106 was powered by a Pratt & Whitney J75-P-17 afterburning turbojet engine. The J75-P-17 was a two-spool axial-flow turbojet engine with afterburner. It used a 15-stage compressor section (8 high- and 7 low-pressure stages) and a 3-stage turbine section (1 high- and 2-low pressure stages). The J75-P-17 had a maximum continuous power rating of 14,100 pounds of thrust (62.72 kilonewtons), and military power rating of 16,100 pounds (71.62 kilonewtons) (30-minute limit). It produced a maximum of 24,500 pounds (108.98 kilonewtons) with afterburner (5-minute limit). The engine was 3 feet, 8.25 inches (1.124 meters) in diameter, 19 feet, 9.6 inches long (6.035 meters), and weighed 5,875 pounds (2,665 kilograms).

Convair F-106A Delta Dart 58-0787 sits in a snow-covered Montana farm field, February 1970. (U.S. Air Force)

The interceptor has a cruise speed of 530 knots (610 miles per hour/982 kilometers per hour). and a maximum speed of 1,153 knots 1,327 miles per hour/2,135 kilometers per hour) at 35,000 feet (10,668 meters). The F-106A had a service ceiling is 53,800 feet (16,398 meters) and a rate of climb of 48,900 feet per minute (248 meters per second). Its combat radius was 530 nautical miles (610 statute miles/982 kilometers) and the maximum ferry range was 1,843 nautical miles (2,121 statute miles/3,413 kilometers).

A Convair F-106A Delta Dart launches a Genie air-to-air rocket. (U.S. Air Force)
A Convair F-106A-135-CO Delta Dart, 59-0146, of the 194th Fighter Interceptor Squadron, California Air National Guard, launches an AIM-2 Genie air-to-air rocket. (U.S. Air Force)

The Delta Dart was armed with four GAR-3A radar-homing, or -4A (AIM-4F, -4G) infrared-homing Falcon air-to-air guided missiles, and one MB-1 (AIM-2A) Genie unguided rocket with a 1.5 kiloton W-25 nuclear warhead. The missiles were carried in an internal weapons bay. In 1972, the General Electric M61A1 Vulcan 20mm cannon was added to the rear weapons bay with 650 rounds of ammunition. (The number of gun-equipped Delta Darts is uncertain.)

Convair built 342 F-106 interceptors. 277 were F-106As and the remainder were F-106B two-seat trainers.

Convair F-106A-100-CO Delta Dart 58-0787 in the collection of the National Museum of the United States Air Force, Wright-Patterson AFB, Ohio. (U.S. Air Force)
Convair F-106A-100-CO Delta Dart 58-0787 in the collection of the National Museum of the United States Air Force, Wright-Patterson AFB, Ohio. (U.S. Air Force)

© 2019, Bryan R. Swopes

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30 January 1934

Osoaviakhim-1, 30 January 1934. (RIA Novosti/Science Source)
П. Ф. Федосеенко (Pavel Fyodorovich Fedoseyenko)

30 January 1934: At approximately 9:00 a.m. a large gas balloon lifted off from Matilovo, near Moscow, and ascended toward the stratosphere. Three aeronauts were aboard: Pavel Fyodorovich Fedoseyenko, Ilya Davydovich Usyskin, and Andrei Bogdanovich Vasenko. The balloon was named Osoaviakhim 1.

Buoyancy was provided by gaseous hydrogen. When fully expanded, the balloon had a volume of approximately 25,000 cubic meters (882,867 cubic feet) and a diameter of 177 feet (54.95 meters).

The three passengers and scientific instruments were carried in a welded sheet metal sphere hanging from cables below the envelope. The gondola was considered air-tight, and with its passengers, equipment and ballast, weighed about 2,000 kilograms (4,409 pounds).

The equipment and experiments carried aboard Osoaviakhim 1 were provided by the Main Physical Observatory, Ioffe Physical-Technical Institute, and the State Radium Institute, all located in Leningrad, Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic. They were designed to measure cosmic rays, determine the makeup of the upper atmosphere, and measure magnetic effects. Photographs of the ground were also to be taken.

А.Б.Васенко (Andrei Vasenko)

As the balloon rose, the crew maintained radio contact with ground stations. At about 11:45, they reported that they had reached about 67,600 feet (20,600 meters). At 12:23, Osoaviakhim 1 had reached its peak altitude, 22,000 meters (72,178 feet).

While in the stratosphere, sunlight was not damped as it would have been in the lower, denser troposphere. It caused the hydrogen within the envelope to heat to approximately 54 °C. (129 °F.) above the temperature of the surrounding air. The hydrogen expanded the envelope beyond its limits and was released through pressure relief valves.

During the descent, the remaining hydrogen cooled and contracted. The balloon gradually lost buoyancy and the rate of descent increased. The crew had released all of the ballast in order to reach the peak altitude and now had no way to lighten ship to slow the balloon’s descent. After passing through 12,000 meters (39,370 feet), the rate of descent began to dramatically increase, and by 8,000 meters (26,247 feet), the balloon was torn away from the spherical gondola, which then entered a free fall.

И.Д.Усыскин (Il’ia Usyskin)

Osoaviakhim 1 struck the ground near Potijsky Ostrog, about 470 kilometers (292 miles) east of Matilovo. All three men were killed. A watch belonging to Vasenko was stopped at 4:23. Presumably, this was the time at which the impact occurred.

A state funeral was held 2 February. The ashes of the three aeronauts were interred in the Kremlin wall. The three urns were carried by the most prominent leaders of the Communist state, Joseph Vissarionovich Stalin, General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union; Kliment Yefremovich Voroshilov, People’s Commissar for Defense; and Vyacheslav Mikhailovich Molotov, Chairman of the Council of People’s Commissars.

Fedoseyenko, Usyskin, and Vasenko were named Heroes of the Soviet Union.

Although Osoaviakhim 1 rose higher than than the 18,665 meter record ¹ set by Century of Progress (Commander Thomas Greenhow Williams Settle, United States Navy, and Major Chester Fordnay, United States Marine Corps), 20 November 1933, its peak altitude was not recognized as a record by the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI). At the time, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics was not a member nation of the FAI.

Osoaviakhim stratospheric balloon. (Georgy N. Bibikov/The State Russian Museum)

¹ FAI Record File Number 10645

2018, Bryan R. Swopes

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24 January 1963

Boeing B-52C-40-BO Stratofortress 53-400, the same type as 53-406, which crashed on Elephant Mountain, 24 January 1963. (San Diego Air & Space Museum)

24 January 1963: A Boeing B-52C-40-BO Stratofortress, 53-0406, call sign “Frosh 10,” of the 99th Bombardment Wing, Heavy, was conducting a low-altitude training flight using terrain-following radar. Eight crewmen were aboard. Flying at or below 500 feet (152 meters) above ground level (AGL) and at 280 knots (322 miles per hour, 519 kilometers per hour) the bomber encountered wind gusts of up to 40 knots (21 meters per second).

As the turbulence became severe, the aircraft commander, Lieutenant Colonel Dante E. Bulli, began a climb to avoid it. At approximately 2:52 p.m., EST, however, the vertical fin attachment failed and the B-52 began rolling to the right and pitching down. Colonel Bulli, unable to control the airplane, ordered the crew to abandon the bomber.

B-52C 53-0406 crashed into the west side of Elephant Mountain, a 3,774 foot (1,150 meters) forest-covered mountain, 6 miles (10 kilometers) from Greenville, Maine. Only three men, Colonel Bulli, co-pilot Major Robert J. Morrison and navigator Captain Gerald J. Adler, were able to get out of the B-52, but Major Morrison died when he hit a tree. Lieutenant Colonel Joe R. Simpson, Jr., Major William W. Gabriel, Major Robert J. Hill, Jr., Captain Herbert L. Hansen, Captain Charles G. Leuchter and Technical Sergeant Michael F. O’Keefe were also killed.

Large sections of Frosh 10 are still on Elephant Mountain. The crash site is a popular hiking destination.

The Boeing B-52 Stratofortress had been designed as a very high altitude penetration bomber, but changes in Soviet defensive systems led to a change to very low altitude flight as a means of evading radar. This was subjecting the airframes to unexpected stresses. Several crashes resulted from structural failures during turbulence.

Less than one year later, Boeing was conducting flight tests of the B-52 in turbulence, using a highly-instrumented B-52H. That airplane also lost its vertical fin when it encountered severe turbulence in Colorado. The Boeing test pilots aboard were able to save the bomber and landed it six hours later.

Boeing B-52H-170-BW Stratofortress 61-023, "Ten-Twenty-Three", after losing the vertical fin, 10 January 1964. (Boeing)
Boeing B-52H-170-BW Stratofortress 61-023, “Ten-Twenty-Three”, after losing the vertical fin, 10 January 1964. (Boeing)
Colonel Dante E. Bulli, United States Air Force

Dante E. Bulli was born at Cherry, Illinois, 17 July 1922, the second child of Italian immigrants Giovanni Bulli, a salesman, and Anna Gareto Bulli.  He attended Hall High School before working on the aircraft assembly lines of the Lockheed Aircraft Company in California.

Bulli enlisted as an aviation cadet in the U.S. Army Air Corps in 1942. He was commissioned as a second lieutenant, Army of the United States, 5 December 1943, and promoted to first lieutenant, 5 December 1946.

In 1947 Lieutenant Bulli married Miss Evelyn Lewis, also from Cherry, Illinois.

“Dan” Bulli was a combat veteran of World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War. He flew B-24 Liberators, the B-29 Superfortress and B-52 Stratofortress. He retired from the Air Force in 1974.

Colonel Dante E. Bulli died at Omaha, Nebraska, 30 December 2016, at the age of 94 years.

© 2018, Bryan R. Swopes

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24 January 1961

Boeing B-52G-75-BW Stratofortress 57-6471, similar to 58-0187. The numeral "3" on the vertical fin and the white cross-in-back square on the top of the fuselage identify this B-52 as a Boeing flight test aircraft. (U.S. Air Force)
Boeing B-52G-75-BW Stratofortress 57-6471, similar to 58-0187. The numeral “3” on the vertical fin and the white cross-in-back square on the top of the fuselage identify this B-52 as a Boeing flight test aircraft. (U.S. Air Force)

24 January 1961: “Keep 19,” a Boeing B-52G-95-BW Stratofortress, serial number 58-0187, of the 4241st Strategic Wing, was on a 24 hour airborne alert mission off the Atlantic Coast of the United States. The bomber was commanded by Major Walter S. Tulloch, U.S. Air Force, with pilots Captain Richard W. Hardin and First Lieutenant Adam C. Mattocks. Other crewmembers were Major Eugene Shelton, Radar Navigator; Captain Paul E. Brown, Navigator; First Lieutenant William H. Wilson, Electronics Warfare Officer; Major Eugene H Richards, Electronics Warfare Instructor; Technical Sergeant Francis R. Barnish, Gunner. It was armed with two Mark 39 thermonuclear bombs, each with an explosive yield of 3–4 megatons.

The B-52 refueled in flight from an air tanker. The tanker’s crew notified Major Tulloch that the B-52’s right wing was leaking fuel. The leak was severe and more than 5,400 gallons (37,000 pounds/17,000 kilograms) of jet fuel was lost in less than three minutes. The B-52 headed for Seymour Johnson Air Force Base in North Carolina.

Boeing B-52G-95-BW Stratofortress 58-0190, the same type as Keep 19. (U.S. Air Force)

As they descended, the unbalanced condition made the bomber increasingly difficult to control. The bomber went out of control and Major Tulloch ordered the crew to abandon the doomed ship. Five crewmen ejected and one climbed out through the top hatch. (Lieutenant Mattocks is believed to be the only B-52 crewmember to have successfully escaped through the upper hatch.)

58-0187 broke apart and exploded. Its wreckage covered a two square mile (5.2 square kilometers) area. Three crewmen, Majors Shelton and Richards, and Sergeant Barnish, were killed.

As the B-52 broke up, its two Mark 39 bombs fell free of the bomb bay. One buried itself more than 180 feet (55 meters) deep. The other’s parachute retarding system operated properly and it touched down essentially undamaged. It was quickly safed by an explosive ordnance team and hauled away.

One of teh two Mk 39 bombs that fell from the B-52 as it broke up near Goldsboro, South Carolina, 24 January 1961.
One of the two Mk 39 bombs that fell from the B-52 as it broke up near Goldsboro, North Carolina, 24 January 1961. The parachute retarding  system had deployed, allowing the bomb to touch down with minimal damage.

Recovery of the buried bomb was very difficult. After eight days, the ordnance team had recovered most of the bomb, including the 92 detonators and conventional explosive “lenses” of the “primary,” the first stage implosion section. The uranium-235/plutonium-239 “pit”—the very core of the bomb— was recovered on 29 January. The “secondary,” however, was never found.

Most of the Mark 39 bomb was uncovered from an excavation at the farm field near Goldsboro, North Carolina. (U.S. Air Force)

The secondary contains the fusion fuel, but it cannot detonate without the explosion of the primary. Although the secondary remains buried, there is no danger of an explosion.

“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.”

An accident of this type, involving the loss of nuclear weapons is known by the military code name BROKEN ARROW. Though official statements were that there was no danger that either of the bombs could have exploded, others indicate that five of the six steps (or six of seven) required for a thermonuclear detonation did occur. Only the aircraft commander’s arming switch had not been activated.

Bomb, Mark 39Y1 Mod 2, P/N 300611-00, serial number 4215, at the National Museum of the United States Air Force. Behind it is a Convair B-36 Peacemaker ten-engine strategic bomber. (U.S. Air Force)

The Mark 39 was a two-stage, radiation-implosion thermonuclear bomb. It was in production from 1957–1959, with more than 700 built. It was fully fused, meaning it could be detonated by contact with the ground, as an air burst, or “lay down”— a series of parachutes would slow the bomb and it would touch down on its target before detonating. This allowed the bomber time to get clear.

The Mark 39 was considered a light weight weapon, weighing 6,500–6,750 pounds (2,950–3,060 kilograms). The bomb’s length was approximately 11 feet, 8 inches (3.556 meters), with a diameter of 2 feet, 11 inches (0.889 meters). The explosive yield of the Mark 39 was 3–4 megatons. (For reference, the 1956 nuclear weapons test at Bikini Atoll, Redwing Cherokee, had a yield of 3.8 megatons.)

Fireball from detonation of TX-15 weapon, Operation Redwing Cherokee, 21 May 1956. (Nuclear Weapons Archive)

The Mark 39 was withdrawn from service in the mid-1960s and replaced with the more powerful Mk 41.

© 2018, Bryan R. Swopes

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