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Bad Day at Mars Bluff

…In one of my earliest posts here, I mentioned that My Beloved Service has had a long series of…problems…regarding the weapons we only half jestingly referred to as Instant Sunrises or Crowd Pleasers, better known as nuclear or thermonuclear weapons.   Strategic Air Command, May Peace Be Its Profession Unto Them, made a positive fetish out of nuclear safety, but it was wise to do so.  And we were blessed by the results – since the beginning of the nuclear age, the United States Air Force has never had a nuclear yield caused by accident or carelessness.

Not to say we haven’t lost a few and not gotten ’em back.  Sadly, that’s been known to happen, though it’s been a while.  But during the 50s and 60s, we were known to bobble a bomb or two, and that’s wherein lies our story on a windy March afternoon fifty-seven years ago.

On March 11, 1958, a B-47 bomber was flying over the little town of Mars Bluff, SC, on its way to exercises with our Cousins Across the Pond.

The Boeing B-47E Stratojet.  The buildings in the background and the Avro Vulcan visible to the right suggest this was taken on an RAF base.

The Boeing B-47E Stratojet. The buildings in the background and the Avro Vulcan visible to the right suggest this was taken on an RAF base.

Tucked snugly into the bomb bay was a Mark 6 atomic bomb – roughly four tons worth of cutting-edge destructive technology with a variable yield of up to 160 kilotons (put into perspective, that was eight times the yield of the Mk 1 ‘Little Boy’ at  Hiroshima.).

The Mark 6 nuclear bomb - the United States Air Force's way of saying, "Back the feck off."

The Mark 6 nuclear bomb – the United States Air Force’s way of saying, “Back the feck off.”

Now, it wasn’t at all unknown in those days to fly live nukes hither and yon, in this case because if the Balloon went up while they were over there SAC expected them to do their duty from an RAF runway if need be.  So when they launched from Hunter AFB near Savannah, GA, CAPT Earl Koehler, USAF, was being extra careful with his airplane and the plutonium horror a few feet behind him.  Unfortunately, this was going to be one of those days when careful just wasn’t going to cut it.  Now, I should clarify here, especially for the faint-hearted among the Dear Readers, that the Mark 6 wasn’t technically live when they left the runway back at Hunter.  Back in the day, aircraft simply did not have the hyper-reliable status they have now – accidents could and did happen on a regular basis, and a fully armed nuclear weapon could not help but make things worse.  So the ‘capsule’ – a steel case containing the actual nuclear material for the bomb – was kept separately from said bomb and if the call came, would be inserted into the bomb by the Bomb/Nav, CAPT Bruce Kulka.

CAPT Koehler got the Stratojet off the ground promptly at 1553 hrs.  Just before that, the copilot, CAPT Charles Woodruff (you know his call sign had to be ‘Woody’) had pulled a lever in his cockpit to insure that the primary locking pin on the Mark 6 was disengaged, so in the event of an emergency on takeoff they could jettison the bomb and try to get back to Hunter – the Stratojet, for all it’s sleek, futuristic beauty, was a true and genuine pig to fly with a full warload and fuel.  If anything went well and truly south on takeoff, it was felt that it was better to lose the unarmed bomb than the aircraft and its crew.  A silver-grey arrowhead atop a pillar of smoky black exhaust fumes, the Stratojet rose slowly but majestically upwards to join the two other aircraft in its formation.

CAPT Koehler got through the takeoff just fine, but here is where their problems began.  Unknown to the crew, the loaders had a bit of a problem getting the Mark 6 properly hung in the tight confines of the bomb bay – to be precise, the locking pin wouldn’t fully seat.  There was a prescribed solution for this:  call the Weapons Supervisor and have him hit it with a hammer.

No, really.  This required them to briefly take the weight of the bomb off the shackle while the prescribed hammering was accomplished, then the bomb was allowed to rest once more with its full weight on the shackle.  Trouble is that once that was done, no one on the load crew thought to run the locking pin through the emergency release cycle.  Evidence on why this happened is murky, but it appears the load crew may have been running up against time pressures and said, ‘Screw it.’  Whatever the reason, it now came back to bite CAPT Koehler and his men in the backside, for as they got up to altitude over the South Carolina lowcountry, CAPT Woodruff tried to reengage the locking pin…and it wouldn’t work.  He tried for about five minutes, but the pin stayed stubbornly disengaged.  SAC had a procedure for everything, and in this case the procedure was simple:  send the Bomb/Nav back to see if he could fix it.  CAPT Kulka hesitated not, he headed aft and entered the bomb bay.

And it should be mentioned to Dear Reader that, as came out in the official inquiry, CAPT Kulka was…um…how shall I put this…unsure exactly where the locking pin was.

(The veterans reading this are encouraged to take a moment and reflect upon what you know is going to happen next.)

CAPT Kulka entered the bay and tried searching for more than ten minutes for the locking pin, while Koehler and Woodruff were probably becoming increasingly concerned as they waited – there was no way for Kulka to tell anyone what the problem was from the bay, and he was probably feeling the stress of “Holy Crap, I gotta fix this.”  It then occurred to him that the locking pin had to be at or near the shackle itself, and he couldn’t see it because he wasn’t tall enough.  With that, he grabbed a hand-hold to pull himself up.

Unfortunately, that hand-hold was the emergency manual jettison control.

There was a loud SNAP as the shackle functioned as designed and all eight thousand-ish pounds of the Mark 6 – with CAPT Kulka lying atop it a la a certain MAJ Kong – dropped onto the closed and locked bomb bay doors…which resisted their inertia and Newton’s siren call for just a heartbeat before locks and braces screamed, failed, and with a roar of slipstream the bomb headed for the earth below.  Precisely below, as a matter of fact, was Mars Bluff.

Ground Zero, South Carolina.

To Be Continued…

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