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'Broken Arrow': When the First U.S. Atomic Bomb Went Missing

January 13, 2020 in History

By Dave Roos

Was it detonated over the ocean—or did it disappear in the Canadian wilderness?

In 1950, an American B-36 bomber on a peace-time training mission crashed over British Columbia, Canada carrying a Mark IV atomic bomb, a weapon comparable in size to the nuke dropped on Nagasaki in 1945. According to testimonies from the surviving crew members, they had safely jettisoned the bomb, and detonated it in mid-air before the plane went down.

The crash became famous as the very first “broken arrow,” the U.S. military’s term for an accident involving a nuclear weapon. But questions swirled for decades about whether the bomb was really detonated over the ocean—or whether it went missing somewhere in the Canadian wilderness.

Five years after using the first atomic weapons to force the surrender of Japan in World War II, the United States military was preparing for a new era of nuclear warfare with its Cold War adversary, the Soviet Union. The Convair B-36 “Peacemaker” was the first true intercontinental bomber capable of carrying nuclear weapons to any part of the world, and the U.S. Strategic Air Command (SAC) was eager to test the new planes with a real payload.

READ MORE: What is a Broken Arrow?

A test bombing run goes awry

After months of lobbying, SAC leaders were able to convince the Atomic Energy Commission to lend them a Mark IV atomic bomb without its plutonium core. The bomb still contained large amounts of uranium and conventional explosives—but it couldn’t trigger a devastating nuclear blast.

On February 13, 1950, a B-36 known as Flight 2075 took off from Eielson Air Force Base near Fairbanks, Alaska with a crew of 17. The test flight was meant to replicate a bombing run on a major city in the Soviet Union. The B-36 was slated to fly a 5,500-mile route from Alaska to Montana, then down to San Francisco, its bombing “target,” and finally landing in Carswell Air Force Base in Texas.

But things didn’t go as planned. Not long after taking off, ice began to accumulate on the bomber’s fuselage and the excess weight put tremendous strain on the engines, three of which caught fire and had to be shut down. With only three functioning engines, the B-36 began to lose altitude at a rate of 500 feet per minute.

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