Tag Archives: Strategic Bomber

15 April 1952

The Boeing YB-52 Stratofortress, 49-231, takes off from Boeing Field at 11:09 a.m., 15 April 1952. (Robert F. Dorr Collection)
The Boeing YB-52 Stratofortress, 49-231, takes off from Boeing Field at 11:09 a.m., 15 April 1952. (Robert F. Dorr Collection)

15 April 1952: At 11:09 a.m., Boeing’s Chief of Flight Test, Alvin M. “Tex” Johnston, and Lieutenant Colonel Guy M. Townsend, U.S. Air Force, ran all eight turbojet engines to full power and released the brakes on the YB-52 Stratofortress prototype, 49-231.

With an awesome eight-engine roar, the YB-52 sprang forward, accelerating rapidly, wings curving upward as they accepted the 235,000-pound initial flight gross weight. At V2 (takeoff speed) the airplane lifted off the runway, because of the 6-degree angle of incidence of the wing, and at 11:08 a.m. we were airborne. The initial flight of the YB-52 had begun.

Tex Johnston: Jet-Age Test Pilot, by A.M. “Tex” Johnston with Charles Barton, Smithsonian Books, Washington, D.C., 1992, Chapter 13 at Pages 397–398.

Alvin M. "Tex" Johnston, test pilot, after the first flight of the Boeing XB-52 Stratofortress prototype, 2 October 1952. (LIFE via Jet Pilot Overseas)
Alvin M. “Tex” Johnston, Boeing Chief of Flight Test, after the first flight of the Boeing XB-52 Stratofortress prototype, 2 October 1952. (LIFE via Jet Pilot Overseas)

The YB-52 remained over the Seattle area for approximately 40 minutes while Johnson and Townsend ran through a series of systems checks. When completed, they climbed to 25,000 feet (7,620 meters) and flew the new bomber to Larson Air Force Base at Moses Lake, Washington, where they stayed airborne for continued testing. The Stratofortress finally touched down after 3 hours, 8 minutes—the longest first flight in Boeing’s history up to that time. Johnston radioed that the airplane performed exactly as the engineers had predicted.

The YB-52 had actually been ordered as the second of two XB-52s, but modifications and additional equipment installed during building resulted in enough differences to warrant a designation change. The first XB-52, 49-230, would have been the first to fly, but it was damaged during ground testing.

The Boeing XB-52 and YB-52 were prototypes for a very long range strategic bomber. Both were built with a tandem cockpit for the pilot and co-pilot, similar to the earlier B-47 Stratojet. The wings were swept to 35° and mounted high on the fuselage (“shoulder-mounted”). The eight turbojet engines were in in two-engine nacelles mounted on pylons, below and ahead of the wings. This had the effect of preventing the airplane’s center of gravity from being too far aft, and also provided cleaner air flow across the wings. The B-52’s landing gear has four main struts with two wheels, each. They can turn to allow the airplane to face directly into the wind while the landing gear remain aligned with the runway for takeoff and landing. With the landing gear under the fuselage, the wings could be constructed with greater flexibility.

Boeing YB-52 Stratofortress 49-231. (U.S. Air Force)
Boeing YB-52 Stratofortress 49-231. (U.S. Air Force)

The YB-52 was 152 feet, 8 inches (46.533 meters) long with a wingspan of 185 feet, 0 inches (56.388 meters). The prototype’s overall height was 48 feet, 3.6 inches (14.722 meters). The vertical fin could be folded over to the right so that the B-52 could fit into a hangar. The YB-52 had an empty weight of 155,200 pounds (70,398 kilograms) and gross weight of 405,000 pounds (183,705 kilograms).

The YB-52 was powered by eight Pratt & Whitney Turbo Wasp YJ57-P-3 turbojet engines. The J57 was a two-spool, axial-flow turbojet developed from an experimental turboprop engine. It had 16-stage compressor section (9 low- and 7-high-pressure stages), 8 combustors and a 3-stage turbine section (1 high- and 2 low-pressure stages). The YJ57-P-3s were rated at 8,700 pounds of thrust (38.70 kilonewtons), each. The YJ57-P-3 was 183.5 inches (4.661 meters) long, 41.0 inches (1.041 meters) in diameter and weighed 4,390 pounds (1,991 kilograms).

The YB-52 had a cruise speed of 519 miles per hour (835 kilometers per hour) and maximum speed of 611 miles per hour (983 kilometers per hour) at 20,000 feet (6,096 meters). Its range was 7,015 miles (11,290 kilometers).

The two prototypes were unarmed.

Boeing YB-52 Stratofortress 49-231

The B-52 was produced by Boeing at its plants in Seattle and Wichita from 1952 to 1962, with a total of 744 Stratofortresses built. The last version, the B-52H, entered service with the Strategic Air Command in 1960. The final B-52, B-52H-175-BW Stratofortress 61-0040, was rolled out at Wichita, Kansas, 26 October 1962. This airplane remains in service with the United States Air Force. The newest B-52 in service, 61-0040 is 56 years old and has flown more than 21,000 hours.

All previous versions, B-52A through B-52G, have long been retired to The Boneyard and scrapped. Of the 102 Boeing B-52H Stratofortress bombers, 76 are still in the active inventory. One, 61-007, known as Ghost Rider, was recently taken from Davis-Monthan and after an extensive restoration and update, returned to service.

The YB-52 prototype was retired to the National Museum of the United States Air Force in the late 1950s. By the mid-60s it was determined to be excess and was scrapped.

Captain William Magruder (standing) Boeing Chief Test Pilot Alvin M. Johnston (center) and Lieutenant Colonel Guy M. Townsend with the Boeing YB-52 Stratofortress 49-231. (Boeing)
Left to right: Captain William Magruder, USAF; Boeing Chief Test Pilot Alvin M. Johnston; and Lieutenant Colonel Guy M. Townsend, USAF, with the Boeing YB-52 Stratofortress, 49-231. (Boeing)

© 2018, Bryan R. Swopes

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6 March 1961

Boeing B-52H-135-BW Stratofortress 60-0006. (United States Air Force)

6 March 1961: The B-52H is the final version of the Boeing B-52 Stratofortress intercontinental strategic bomber. There are discrepancies as to the date of its first flight, with sources varying by as much as eight months. One very reliable source writes that the flight took place on 20 July 1960. A U.S. Air Force publication says that it was in March 1961, and another source (Boeing) says that it was 6 March 1961. (This third date is convenient, so, for no other reason, I’ve posted this article using that date.)

The U.S. Air Force contracted 62 B-52H Stratofortresses, serial numbers 60-0001 through 60-0062, on 6 May 1960. A second group of 40, serials 61-0001 through 61-0040, were ordered later. All were built at the Boeing Wichita plant.

A fourth source identifies the aircraft in the photograph above, Boeing B-52H-135-BW Stratofortress 60-0006, (Boeing serial number 464-371) as the first B-52H to fly. The existence of a nice aerial portrait suggests that this may be correct.

The B-52H, like the B-52G, is a re-engineered aircraft, structurally different from the XB-52, YB-52, and B-52A–B-52F Stratofortress variants. It is lighter, carries more internal fuel, giving it a longer unrefueled range, and is strengthened for low-altitude flight. The shorter vertical fin is intended to prevent the losses caused by the original tall fin in turbulent air. The B-52H is equipped with quieter, more efficient turbofan engines.

A Boeing B-52H Stratofortress carries four Douglas Skybolt ALBMs. (U.S. Air Force)
A Boeing B-52H Stratofortress carries four Douglas GAM-87 Skybolt ALBMs. (U.S. Air Force)

The B-52H was developed to carry four Douglas GAM-87 Skybolt air-launched ballistic missiles on pylons mounted under the wings, inboard of the engines. The Skybolt was armed with a 1-megaton W-59 thermonuclear warhead. The program was cancelled, however, and the North American Aviation AGM-28 Hound Dog air-launched cruise missile was used instead. (Interestingly, the Hound Dog’s Pratt & Whitney J52-P-3 turbojet engine could be used to supplement the B-52’s takeoff thrust, and then refueled from the bomber’s tanks before being air-launched.)

Boeing B-52G Stratofortress aremd with two North American Aviation AGM-28 Hound Dog ACLMs. (U.S. Air Force)
Boeing B-52G-105-BW Stratofortress 58-0216 armed with two North American Aviation AGM-28 Hound Dog ALCMs. (U.S. Air Force)

The B-52H is a sub-sonic, swept wing, long-range strategic bomber. It was originally operated by a crew of six: two pilots, a navigator and a radar navigator, an electronic warfare officer, and a gunner. (The gunner was eliminated after 1991). The airplane is 159 feet, 4 inches (48.565 meters) long, with a wing span of 185 feet (56.388 meters). It is 40 feet, 8 inches (12.395 meters) high to the top of the vertical fin. The B-52H uses the vertical fin developed for the B-52G, which is 22 feet, 11 inches (6.985 meters) tall. This is 7 feet, 8 inches (2.337 meters) shorter than the fin on the XB-52–B-52F aircraft, but the fin’s chord is longer. The bomber has an empty weight of 172,740 pounds (78,354 kilograms) and its Maximum Takeoff Weight (MTOW) is 488,000 pounds (221,353 kilograms).

The most significant difference between the B-52H and the earlier Stratofortresses is the replacement of the eight Pratt & Whitney J57-series turbojet engines with eight Pratt & Whitney Turbo Wasp JT3D-2 (TF33-P-3) turbofans, which are significantly more efficient. They are quieter and don’t emit the dark smoke trails of the turbojets. The TF-33 is a two-spool axial-flow turbofan engine with 2 fan stages, a 14-stage compressor section (7-stage intermediate pressure, 7-stage high-pressure) and and a 4-stage turbine (1-stage high-pressure, 3-stage low-pressure). Each engine produces a maximum of 17,000 pounds of thrust (75.620 kilonewtons). The TF33-P-3 is 11 feet, 10 inches (3.607 meters) long, 4 feet, 5.0 inches (1.346 meters) in diameter and weighs 3,900 pounds (1,769 kilograms).

The B-52H has a cruise speed of 525 miles per hour (845 kilometers per hour). It has a maximum speed of 632 miles per hour (1,017 kilometers per hour) at 23,800 feet (7,254 meters)—0.908 Mach. The service ceiling is 47,700 feet (14,539 meters). The unrefueled range is 8,000 miles (12,875 kilometers). With inflight refueling, its range is limited only by the endurance of its crew.

The B-52H was armed with a 20 mm M61 Vulcan 6-barreled cannon in place of the four .50-caliber machine guns of the earlier variants.
The B-52H was armed with a 20 mm M61A1 Vulcan 6-barreled rotary cannon in place of the four .50-caliber machine guns of the earlier variants. The gun was removed after 1991.

The B-52H was armed with a 20mm M61A1 Vulcan six-barreled rotary cannon in a remotely-operated tail turret. The gun had a rate of fire of 4,000 rounds per minute, and had a magazine capacity of 1,242 rounds. After 1991, the gun and its radar system were removed from the bomber fleet. The flight crew was reduced to five.

The B-52H can carry a wide variety of conventional free-fall or guided bombs, land-attack or anti-ship cruise missiles, and thermonuclear bombs or cruise missiles. These can be carried both in the internal bomb bay or on underwing pylons. The bomb load is approximately 70,000 pounds (31,751 kilograms).

A Boeing B-52H Stratofortress dropping forty-five M117 750-pound (340 kilogram) general purpose bombs. (Senior Airman Carlin Leslie, U.S. Air Force)

The first of 102 B-52H Stratofortresses entered service on 9 May 1961. The last one, 61-0040, was rolled out 26 October 1962. Beginning in 2009, eighteen B-52H bombers were placed in climate-controlled long term storage at Tinker Air Force Base, Oklahoma. As of December 2015, fifty-eight of the bombers remained in the active fleet of the United States Air Force and eighteen are assigned to the Air Force Reserve. In 2014, the entire fleet began a major avionics upgrade. The B-52H is expected to remain in service until 2040.

An ordnance crew loads a rotary launcher with 8 cruise missiles into teh bomb bay of a B-52H Stratofortress. (Senior Airman Amber Ashcraft/U.S. Air Force)
An ordnance crew loads a rotary launcher with 8 cruise missiles into the bomb bay of a B-52H Stratofortress. (Senior Airman Amber Ashcraft/U.S. Air Force)

60-0006, the first B-52H to fly, crashed while making a ground-controlled (GCA) approach to Wright Patterson Air Force Base, Dayton, Ohio, at 2:07 a.m., 30 May 1974. The bomber’s rudder and elevators failed. Although 60-0006 was destroyed, all seven airmen on board, Captains Charles Brown, Robert E. Smith, William G. Heckathorn, Paul C. Hoffman, 1st Lieutenants John D. Weaver, James R. Villines, and 2nd Lieutenant Robert E. Pace, survived the accident without serious injuries.

Wreck of Boeing B-52H-135-NW Stratofortress 60-0006 at Wright-Patterson AFB, 30 May 1974. (Dayton Daily News Archive)
Wreck of Boeing B-52H-135-BW Stratofortress 60-0006 at Wright-Patterson AFB, 30 May 1974. Two AGM-28 Hound Dog ACLMs are lying in the background. (Dayton Daily News Archive)
A Boeing B-52H Stratofortress during a deterrent patrol near the Democratic People’s Republic of North Korea, 2016. The bomber is carrying a load of Mk.84 2,000-pound JDAM “smart” bombs. (Master Sgt. Lance Cheung, U.S. Air Force)
Boeing B-52H-165-BW Stratofortress 61-0007 takes off at Tinker Air Force Base on a functional test flight, 30 August 2016. The airplane, named “Ghost Rider,” was overhauled after being stored for eight years at The Boneyard, Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, Arizona. 61-0007 is the very first B-52 to have been “regenerated.” (Kelly White/U.S. Air Force)

© 2017, Bryan R. Swopes

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12 February 1959

Convair B-36J-10-CF Peacemaker, 52-2827, the last B-36 built. (U.S. Air Force)
Convair B-36J-75-CF Peacemaker, 52-2827, the last B-36 built. (U.S. Air Force)

The Last Peacemaker: This gigantic airplane, a Convair B-36J-75-CF Peacemaker, serial number 52-2827, was the very last of the ten-engine strategic bombers built by the Convair Division of General Dynamics at Fort Worth, Texas. It was completed 1 July 1954. On 14 August, it was delivered to the Strategic Air Command, 92nd Bombardment Wing, Heavy, at Fairchild Air Force Base, Washington. Later, 52-2827 was assigned to the 95th Bombardment Wing, Heavy, at Biggs Air Force Base, El Paso, Texas.

The last one built, 52-2827 was also the last operational B-36.

Convair B-36J-10-CF Peacemaker 52-2827 at Amon Carter Field, Fort Worth, Texas, 12 February 1959. (Unattributed)
Convair B-36J-75-CF Peacemaker 52-2827 at Amon Carter Field, Fort Worth, Texas, 12 February 1959. (Unattributed)

On 12 February 1959, after 4 years, 5 months, 30 days service, the Air Force returned the bomber to Fort Worth. 52-2827 departed Biggs Air Force Base at 11:00 a.m., under the command of Major Frederick J. Winter, with 23 persons on board. It touched down at Amon Carter Field at 2:55 p.m.

After a ceremony attended by thousands, the bomber was officially retired. It was then put on display at Amon Carter Field.

After decades of neglect, the bomber was placed in the care of the Pima Air and Space Museum at Tucson for restoration and display.

The last Peacemaker, Convair B-36J-10-CF 52-2827, comes to the end of the assembly line at Fort Worth, Texas. (University of North Texas Libraries)
The last Peacemaker, Convair B-36J-75-CF 52-2827, comes to the end of the assembly line at Fort Worth, Texas. (University of North Texas Libraries)

Convair B-36J 52-2827 is one of 14 “Featherweight III” high altitude variants. It was built without the six retractable defensive gun turrets of the standard B-36, retaining only the two M24A1 20 mm autocannons in the tail. This reduced the crew requirement to 13. It is 162 feet, 1 inch (49.403 meters) long with a wingspan of 230 feet (70.104 meters) and overall height of 46 feet, 9 inches (14.249 meters). The empty weight is 166,125 pounds (75,353 kilograms) and loaded weight is 262,500 pounds (119,068 kilograms). Maximum takeoff weight is 410,000 pounds (185,973 kilograms).

The B-36J has ten engines. There are six air-cooled, supercharged 4,362.49 cubic-inch-displacement (71.488 liter) Pratt & Whitney Wasp Major C6 (R-4360-53) four-row, 28-cylinder radial engines placed inside the wings in a pusher configuration. These had a compression ratio of 6.7:1 and required 115/145 aviation gasoline. The R-4360-53 had a Normal Power rating of 2,800 horsepower at 2,600 r.p.m. Its Military Power rating was 3,500 horsepower at 2,800 r.p.m., and 3,800 horsepower at 2,800 r.p.m. with water injection—the same for Takeoff. The engines turned three-bladed Curtiss Electric constant-speed, reversible propellers with a diameter of 19 feet, 0 inches (5.791 meters) through a 0.375:1 gear reduction. The R-4360-53 is 9 feet, 9.00 inches (2.972 meters) long, 4 feet, 7.00 inches (1.397 meters) in diameter, and weighs 4,040 pounds (1,832.5 kilograms).

Four General Electric J47-GE-19 turbojet engines are suspended under the wings in two-engine pods. The J47 is a  single-shaft axial-flow turbojet engine with a 12-stage compressor section, 8 combustion chambers, and single-stage turbine. The J47-GE-19 was modified to run on gasoline and was rated at 5,200 pounds of thrust (23.131 kilonewtons).

The B-36J Featherweight III had a cruise speed of 230 miles per hour (370 kilometers per hour) and a maximum speed of 418 miles per hour (673 kilometers per hour). The service ceiling was 43,600 feet (13,289 meters) and its combat radius was 3,985 miles (6,413 kilometers). The maximum range was 10,000 miles (16,093 kilometers).

The B-36 was designed during World War II and nuclear weapons were unknown to the Consolidated-Vultee Aircraft Corporation engineers. The bomber was built to carry up to 86,000 pounds (39,009 kilograms) of conventional bombs in the four-section bomb bay. It could carry the 43,600 pound (19,777 kilogram) T-12 Cloudmaker, a conventional explosive earth-penetrating bomb. When armed with nuclear weapons, the B-36 could carry several Mk.15 3.8 megaton thermonuclear bombs. By combining the bomb bays, one Mk.17 15-megaton thermonuclear bomb could be carried.

Bomb, Mark 17, displayed with Convair B-36J Peacemaker at the National Museum of the United States Air Force. (U.S. Air Force)
Bomb, Mark 17 Mod 2, displayed with Convair B-36J Peacemaker at the National Museum of the United States Air Force. (U.S. Air Force)

Between 1946 and 1954, 384 B-36 Peacemakers were built. They were never used in combat. Only four still exist.

Convair B-36J-10-CF 52-2827 at the Pima Air and Space Museum, Tucson, Arizona. (B-36 Peacemaker Museum)
Convair B-36J-75-CF 52-2827 at the Pima Air & Space Museum, Tucson, Arizona. (B-36 Peacemaker Museum)

© 2017, Bryan R. Swopes

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4 February 1969

North American Aviation XB-70A-1-NA Valkyrie 62-0001. (U.S. Air Force)

4 February 1969: The North American Aviation XB-70A-1-NA Valkyrie, 62-0001, made its very last flight from Edwards Air Force Base, California, to Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio. NASA Research Test Pilot Fitzhugh L. Fulton, Jr., Lieutenant Colonel, U.S. Air Force (Retired), and Lieutenant Colonel Emil Sturmthal, U.S. Air Force, were the flight crew for this final flight.

On arrival at Wright-Patterson, Fulton closed out the log book and handed it over to the curator of the National Museum of the United States Air Force.

The Mach 3+ prototype strategic bomber and high-speed, high-altitude research airplane had completed 83 flights for a total of 160 hours, 16 minutes of flight time.

Lieutenant Colonel Emil Sturmthal, USAF and Fitzhugh Fulton, NASA, with the North American Aviation XB-70A-1-NA 62-0001 at Edwards AFB, California. (Chris Walmsley/Rockwell International)
Lieutenant Colonel Emil Sturmthal, USAF and Fitzhugh Fulton, NASA, with the North American Aviation XB-70A-1-NA 62-0001 at Edwards AFB, California. (Chris Walmsley/Rockwell International)

62-0001 was the first of three prototype Mach 3+ strategic bombers. (The third prototype, XB-70B 62-0208, was not completed.) The Valkyrie utilized the most advanced technology available. Materials and manufacturing techniques had to be developed specifically to build this airplane. It is a large delta wing airplane with a forward canard and two vertical fins. The outer 20 feet (6.096 meters) of each wing could be lowered to a 25° or 65° angle for high speed flight. Although this did provide additional directional stability, it actually helped increase the compression lift, which supported up to 35% of the airplane’s weight in flight.

The XB-70A is 185 feet, 10 inches (56.642 meters) long with a wingspan of 105 feet (32.004 meters) and overall height of 30 feet, 9 inches (9.373 meters). Fully loaded, the Valkyrie weighs 534,700 pounds (242,535 kilograms).

It is powered by six General Electric YJ93-GE-3 turbojet engines which were rated at 22,000 pounds of thrust (97.86 kilonewtons) at Sea Level, and 31,000 pounds (137.89 kilonewtons) with afterburner. The J93 was a single-shaft axial-flow turbojet with an 11-stage compressor section and two-stage turbine. It was 235.0 inches (5.969 meters) long, 55.0 inches (1.397 meters) in diameter, and weighed 4,770 pounds (2,164 kilograms).

The maximum speed achieved was Mach 3.1 (2,056 miles per hour, or 3,308.8 kilometers per hour) at 73,000 feet (22,250 meters). The service ceiling is 73,350 feet (23,357 meters).

The second Valkyrie, XB-70A-2-NA 62-0207, was destroyed when it crashed after a mid-air collision with a Lockheed F-104N Starfighter flown by NASA Chief Research Test Pilot Joseph A. Walker, 8 June 1966. Both Walker and the B-70’s co-pilot, Major Carl S. Cross, U.S. Air Force, were killed.

XB-70A Valkyrie 62-0001 is in the collection of the National Museum of the United States Air Force.

North American Aviation XB-70A-1-NA Valkyrie 62-0001 at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio. (U.S. Air Force)
North American Aviation XB-70A-1-NA Valkyrie 62-0001 at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio. (U.S. Air Force)
 North American Aviation XB-70A-1-NA Valkyrie 62-0001 at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio. This photograph shows the twelve elevons that act as elevators, flaps and ailerons, the swiveling action of the vertical fins, open drag chute doors and the variable exhaust outlets. (U.S. Air Force).
North American Aviation XB-70A-1-NA Valkyrie 62-0001 at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio. This photograph shows the twelve elevons that act as elevators, flaps and ailerons, the swiveling action of the vertical fins, open drag chute doors and the variable exhaust outlets. (U.S. Air Force).

© 2017, Bryan R. Swopes

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17 January 1966

Boeing KC-135A-BN Stratotanker 58-0004 refuels Boeing B-52G-75-BW Stratofortress 57-6741. These are the same type aircraft that were involved in the 1966 Palomares Incident. (Boeing)

17 January 1966: A United States Air Force Boeing B-52G-115-BW Stratofortress, 58-0256, and its 7-man crew, along with a second B-52, were flying an Airborne Nuclear Alert patrol over the Mediterranean Sea. The bomber, call sign “Tea 16,” was armed with four Mark 28 nuclear bombs carried in its bomb bay.

At approximately 10:30 a.m., the two B-52s rendezvoused with two Boeing KC-135A-BN Stratotankers, based at Morón Air Base, Spain, for the second aerial refueling of the mission. The aircraft were at 31,000 feet (9,448 meters) off the southern coast of Spain.

Major Larry G. Messinger, a veteran of World War II, aboard as a relief pilot, was flying Tea 16 from the left seat. The aircraft commander, Captain Charles J. Wendorf, was in the right, co-pilot’s seat, while 1st Lieutenant Richard J. Rooney, the assigned co-pilot, rode in a jump seat behind them.

Major Messinger later said, “We came in behind the tanker, and we were a little bit fast, and we started to overrun him a little bit. . . .”

A boom operator’s view as a B-52 Stratofortress refuels. (John E. Considine/NASM)

B-52G 58-0256 collided with the refueling boom of “Troubadour 14” (KC-135A 61-0273). The boom penetrated the bomber’s fuselage, broke structural members and the left wing broke off. The B-52 exploded. The fully-loaded tanker, on fire, went into a steep dive. At 1,600 feet (488 meters), it also exploded.

The four crewmen aboard the tanker were killed. Three of the seven men on the B-52 ejected, and the co-pilot, who was not in an ejection seat, literally fell out of the disintegrating bomber. The navigator’s parachute did not open and he was killed. Three others were unable to escape the doomed airplane and were also killed.

Wreckage of B-52G 58-0256 at Palomares, Spain, January 1966. (Kit Talbot/The New York Times)

As the B-52 broke apart, the four nuclear bombs it carried in the bomb bay fell free. Three of them fell near the fishing village of Palomares. In two of these, the conventional explosives that “implode” the plutonium to start a chain reaction, detonated on impact, but a nuclear explosion did not occur. However, plutonium was scattered over the area. The third bomb was recovered intact, though it was slightly damaged. The retarding parachute of the fourth Mark 28 opened and it was carried offshore by the wind and fell into the Mediterranean Sea.

A massive recovery operation took place. The fourth bomb was recovered after five months. It had come to rest in an underwater canyon at a depth of 2,550 feet (777 meters).

1,400 tons of soil was packed into more than 6,000 steel drums and taken to the United States.
1,400 tons of soil was packed into more than 6,000 steel drums and taken to the United States.

558 acres (226 hectares) of land in and around Palomares was contaminated. The soil was removed and placed in steel barrels for transportation to the United States for burial at the Savannah River Plant, a nuclear reservation in South Carolina.

Three airmen position a B28Y1 1.1 megaton thermonuclear bomb for loading aboard a B-52 Stratofortress. (U.S. Air Force)
Three airmen position a B28-Y1 thermonuclear bomb for loading aboard a B-52 Stratofortress. (TSgt. Boyd Belcher, U.S. Air Force)

The Mark 28 was a two-stage radiation-implosion thermonuclear bomb which was designed by the Los Alamos National Laboratory and produced from January 1958 to May 1966. In 1968, it was redesignated B-28. More than 4,500 were manufactured in as many as 20 variants. Explosive yield varied between 70 kilotons and 1.45 megatons. The B-28-Y1 in the photograph above is a 1.1 megaton weapon. The bomb remained in service until 1991.

© 2016, Bryan R. Swopes

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