The very first accident with nuclear weapons, as listed in the Departement of Defense summaries of accidents involving U.S. nuclear weapons between 1950-1980, occured along the coast of British Columbia.
Shortly before midnight on February 13, 1950, distress calls were received from B-36B strategic bomber #2075 off the north coast of British Columbia. The huge United States Air Force plane belonging to the 436 Squadron of the Strategic Air Command was en route from Eielsen Air Force Base near Faibanks, Alaska to Carswell Air Force base at Fort Worth, Texas. According to Maj. Gen. Roger Ramey, Commander of the Eighth air Force, the plane had taken off two days before from Carswell for a training flight. The flight was to have taken about 16 hours. The plane was carrying 17 U.S. Air Force personnel. Besides the regular crew of 16, there was a passenger identified as Lieut. Col. Daniel V. McDonald, who was attached to the Office of Plans and Operations at air Force headquarters. Research conducted by the Centre for Defense Information revealed that the plane was on a "simulated combat profile" mission. The route would take the plane non-stop via Washington State and Montana. Here the B-36 would climb to 40,000 feet for a simulated bomb run to southern California and then San Francisco, it would continue its non-stop flight to Fort Worth, Texas.
The Convair B-36 was the largest production bomber ever built anywhere in the world. In every dimension it was bigger than the B-52, and its wing span of 230 feet was larger than that of a Boeing 747. The B-36B was powered by six pusher-prop engines. Later versions had four jet engines added to the six piston engines. Anybody who has ever heard a B-36 fly over will always remember its distinct loud droning sound. These long range heavy bombers were in service with the US Air Force for about ten years. With the advent of the Boeing B-52, the B-36 was gradually phased out and completely replaced by the year 1959.
On the night of February 13, after 6 hours of flight, the B-36 was experiencing icing conditions and multiple engine fires between 16,000 and 17,000 feet. The distress messages came in quick succession. The first distress signal came at 11:25 PM. It said the aircraft was in difficulty while flying at 40,000 feet. A second message reported: "One engine on fire. Contemplate ditching in Queen Charlotte Sound between Queen Charlotte Island and Vancouver Island. Keep a careful lookout for flares or wreckage." Apart from having icing problems, the instruments were failing. But soon the problem got even worse: two of the engines had caught fire. A third engine had to be feathered, thus the aircraft was flying at half power. According to the pilot, Captain Barry, the plane was iced up at 15,000 feet. When trying to climb, a fire broke out in No. 1 engine. Two minutes later No. 2 engine burst into flames. The bomber started to lose altitude, dropping at 300 feet a minute. Shortly after a fire started in No.5, and then No. 3 stopped with a plugged line. The final message from the plane indicated their position as some 90 miles south of Prince Rupert. The plane was going to ditch in Queen Charlotte Sound. Before jumping, the radio operator, staff Sergeant Trippodi, had tied down the transmitter key. A steady signal would enable rescue units to get a quick "fix" on the bomber's last position. The aircraft was put on auto pilot to fly southwest. After the third of the six engines died, the men bailed out within ten seconds. The landing position between the first and last man was estimated about 1.4 miles. Captain H.L. Barry, the pilot who was the last man to jump, landed in a shallow pond on Ashdown Island. The other two pilots, Captains W.M. Phillips and T.F. Schreier were among the missing crewmen. According to Captain Barry, as the crew drifted down on their parachutes, the plane had circled over the island once. It was assumed that the aircraft went down and sunk somewhere in the ocean.
The exhaust system might have been responsible for this and two separate incedents involving B-36 bombers. On February 12 and 13, two B-36's had made unscheduled landings near Fairbanks, Alaska, reporting serious mechanical failures in approximately the same location as its sister ship on February 13. Sister ship #2083 flying with #2075 encountered the same icing problems during their flight.
There were no ships in the area at that time, nor any local Search and Rescue facilities. Within minutes after recieving the last distress call, however, aircraft from 123 Search and Rescue flight were dispatched from RCAF Station Sea Island near Vancouver. Two US helicopters joined the search, operating out of the area near Surf Inlet on the west side of Princess Royal Island. The search, which eventually covered some 25,000 square miles, was named "Operation Brix."
The weather was poor, with a 500 feet ceiling and winds blowing from the southeast at 45 knots (53 mph). The surface visibility was fair: three miles in light rain. Because survivors could not be expected to live very long if they were down in the sea it was decided to cover the water area first.
On February 14 the area was searched at 500 feet and half a mile visibility. Bad weather prohibited effective search along the shore line of the northeast portion and in the southern part of the area. Bad weather again hampered the search during the early part of the second day.
Some survivors were found before the search got well underway. In the early afternoon on February 15, two survivors were found on the 1,404 square mile Princess Royal Island. Fishing vessel "Cape Perry" had sighted smoke on the island and picked up the two survivors. During the remainder of the afternoon nine more survivors were found. Three of the men were taken off a rubber life raft some distance from shore while seven were picked up by the "Cape Perry". It was reported that one airman was found hanging by his parachute on the side of a cliff beside a small lake, two to three miles inland from the west shore of Princess Royal Island. Radioman Trippodi had come down in a treetop near the peak of a steep 400 foot incline. Trying to unbuckle his harness, he had slipped. His foot caught in the leg strap and he had hung head down. He dangled by an ankle for twelve hours. Next morning two of the crewmen found him still hanging there. They cut him free, wrapped him in his parachute, and put him on a bed of spruce boughs. Later that day a detail from HMCS "Cayuga" reached Trippodi, who was by now delerious, suffering from exhaustion, shock and frostbitten feet.
During the night of February 15-16 HMCS "Cayuga" displayed searchlights. These lights were seen by the remaining survivor who was greatly heartened by the sight. This last survivor, Lieutenant C.G. Pooler was found the next day suffering from a broken ankle. The evacuation of Lt. Pooler, second engineer aboard the B-36, was so difficult that it took seven hours to travel a mile and three quarters. A fifty-five man ground party consisting of both Canadian and American servicemen and civilian mountaineers from the Vancouver Alpine Club, combed the rugged terrain. On February 16, two abandoned parachutes were sighted high in the trees and footprints were found in the snow. Four days later teams from HMCS "Cayuga" found a parachute, a Mae West and a radar reflector. The reflector was found at the site of an SOS spelled in the snow. On February 21, an unused drinking water kit and other small articles of kit were found in the search area. Though the search continued for several days no other survivors were found.
On March 5 the search was reduced to following up of possible clues. The plane and the other five crew members were never found. It was assumed they had drowned either after jumping or when the plane ditched into the ocean.
Some of the survivors were airlifted to the destroyer HMCS "Cayuga". During the de-briefing, the crewmen confirmed that shortly before bailing out, their nuclear bomb load had been jettisoned somewhere along the north coast of British Columbia, possibly in Estevan Sound or Squally Channel. The unarmed bomb was dropped from 8,000 ft just minutes before the men jumped. A bright flash occured on impact, followed by sound and shock waves. Only the bomb's highly explosive material detonated. As the plutonium core was not installed in the bomb, no nuclear explosion took place.
Captain Barry and his group were flown by a Coast Guard PBY to Port Hardy, on the northernmost tip of Vancouver Island. From there they were flown by an American C-82 "Flying Boxcar" to an Air Force Base near Tacoma, Washington.
At the time of the crash the bomber's mission was never mentioned. On February 16, 1950 the New York Times reported: "A general air of secrecy surrounded the plane after last reports were received that it was in distress". Brig. Gen. John D. Montgomery, Operations Officer of the US Air Force Strategic Air Command, issued orders forbidding survivors to talk to the press until "thoroughly briefed" by the Air Force.
American military records give little details about the incident. A declassified report of US military nuclear accidents, released under the American Freedom of Information Act provides only vague details. Nowhere is it stated whether the nuclear capsule, necessary to actually arm the bomb, was on the plane. In a twist of misinformation, the wreckage was reported later found on Vancouver Island.
As soon as the survivors were rescued, US authorities firmly informed Canada that from then on it was a totally American show. The incedent was officially classified as a "Broken Arrow", the US Navy code word for an accident involving any part of a nuclear weapon. The exact location of the bomb was unknown, as it was dropped within half an hour flying distance from the coast, it probaby was dropped somewhere on the continental shelf.
Though its size was never made public, the bomb was believed to have been a Mk 4. The yield of this bomb was probably comparable to the 19 kiloton bomb used on Nagasaki, which killed some 110,000 people. Declassified information released in the early 1980's by the US Defense state that the plane was carrying a 10,000 pound Mk4 or "Fat Man" bomb, the production model of the bomb used over Nagasaki. Though not nearly as big as the H-bomb, it was at the time considered to be a large bomb. The bomber's radio operator, Vitale Trippodi, described it as being bigger than his Volkswagon.
The US Air Force states that the bomb aboard was equipped with a "dummy capsule" with no plutonium in it.
The capsule, with its plutonium sphere is necessary for a nuclear detonation. The bomb did contain an amount of un-enriched uranium. The bomb's conventional explosives, estimated at several thousand pounds, designed to cause a fission reation, destroyed the weapon on impact with the water. It is not known whether the capsule stored in a box, was dropped by parachute, or remained on board the aircraft.
It is not known for certain if carrying a dummy capsule was a normal event for a training flight. With a real bomb, had a real capsule been carried, procedure would have been called for its being jettisoned along with the bomb. Though the deadly plutonium may not have been on board, the bomb had a shell of un-enriched uranium surrounding the high explosives in the bomb. The tamper, as this shell is called, is designed to boost the yield of the bomb by creating a suface for neutrons to deflect off and back into the plutonium core. The very low, virtually undetectable levels of radiation released when the bomb was dropped, were caused by the tamper.
End of story? No, in 1953 the wreckage of the B-36 strategic bomber was discovered by an RCAF plane during the search for the missing plane of the Texas millionaire oilman Ellis Hall. His DeHavilland Dove disappeared on August 17, 1953 after taking off from Ketchican, Alaska on an IFR flight to Bellingham, Wash. After a total of 2,048 hours was flown by military aircraft, the unsuccessful search was terminated on September 5.
Three days before the search was halted, a search aircraft located the wreckage of the B-36 on Kologet Mountain on the west side of the Kispiox Valley. According to long time Kispiox resident, Marty Allen, the wreckage was located on the east side of the Kispiox Valley on Old Baldy Mountain some 30 miles west of Hazelton. Here, some 100 miles northwest of Smithers, British Columbia the bomber had crashed three years earlier. The remains of the plane were at a high elevation of approximately 6,000 in a very rugged mountainous terrain. The aircraft hit the tip of a saddle and crashed some 500 feet on the other side in a fairly flat area. On impact, the bomber's large wings probably caught fire and disintegrated. The burning magnesium of the plane's skin must have lit up the sky for at least 30 minutes. But as this happened in a remote location in the middle of a stormy night, it was never observed.
In early September 1953 the US Air Force sent an investigation team to Smithers, BC. One of the team members was Lieutenant Paul E. Gerhart. Being a survivor of the B-36 accident, he was recalled from the Pacific where he was involved in nuclear weapon testing. During the reconnaissance mission Gerhart apparently reached the wreckage. On its return trip in the second week of September, the big helicopter which brought the team up, crash landed in the Fraser Canyon. The crew escaped injury.
On Sept 21, a ground crew of six American service personnel arrived in Smithers. The team under Capt. Gardella included Captains Horrace Skelton and James Bailey, helicopter and weapons officer respectively and three sergeants: Charles Toulbert, Harold Harvey and weapons technician Jerre White. Their mission was to salvage certain parts of the plane. It was also thought that one of the crew members might have stayed with the plane until it crashed. Four crew members were still listed as missing. They are assumed to have landed in the ocean when they bailed out.
The group left Smithers for Hazelton on September 22. From there they would travel by packhorse with Hazelton resident Jack Lee as guide. Supplies were taken by truck from Smithers to Marty Allen's ranch in the Kispiox Valley. The team flew over the route to the wrecakge, dropping supplies along the way and at the scene of the crash. Photographs taken show the bomber in pieces. During the crash the wings and the forward fuselage totally disintegrated. Only some engines, the remainder of the fuselage and the tail section were visible above the snow. The wingspar, possibly in two pieces, and other parts of the aircraft were covered by snow.
The Canadian Government apparently gave permission for this trip. Dennis Garon, a retired Forest Service employee, remembered the operation. At the time he was working as an assistant ranger in Hazelton. One morning, while preparing his breakfast, he saw a large US military helicopter land near his cabin. An officer intruduced himself and asked whether he could leave one of the crew behind. They had to pick up some local guides, the Love brothers, to take them north into the Upper Kispiox country.
Due to the snow conditionsand the rugged terrain the team made slow progress. Checked from the air on September 26 and again on September 29, further food supplies were dropped for both men and horses. Also protective clothing were dropped to protect them from the harsh conditions they encountered. Originally it was expected to take not more than eight or nine days for the round trip. Contact was kept with them from the air by amphibious aircraft flying out of Tacoma, Wash. On the evening of October 10 the team returned after 19 days of extremely arduous travel. Much of the trip was done on short rations. The men had failed their attempt to reach the wreckage.
The group left by plane on October 12, expected to return within a week. Two further attempts to reach the the wreckage at the end of October failed due to deep snow conditions. A helicopter was used to lift the ground party from its base at the small lake north of Hazelton. The bomber was reported covered with snow. The team left Smithers on October 31 to return to the States.
In early August 1954 another attempt was made to reach the wreckage. The purpose of the trip was the same as the earlier one: to salvage certain parts and destroy the remainder. The Smithers airport was used as the base of operations. Quitre a shroud of secrecy was wrapped around the whole operation.
Part of the team landed at the high altitude site by helicopter. Three US Air Force men, Captains James O. Bailey and Guy Hayden and Staff Sergeant J. Stevens were accompanied by Hunter Simpson of Smithers. Simpson, lineman for the BC Telephone Co., was a friend of one of the service men. He took some time off from his job to accompany the team. Between August 1-16, they spent nine days above 6,000 feet to accomplish their mission. During this time contact was maintained almost daily by a US Air Force flying boat. Supplies were dropped during the last week when poor visibility and weather conditions prevented them being brought out earlier. At the time it was believed that one of the missing crew members had stayed with the plane after the others had bailed out. However it is reported that no bodies were found at the crash site. Rumors about having found the skeletal remains of the co-pilot may have been unfounded.
Sensitive materials such as radar, the bomb sighting and tail gunner's electronics were recoverd. Then several cases of explosives were used to blow up the wreckage. Acording to an eyewitness, no peices bigger than a football remained of the wreckage. After dynamiting the plane, explosives landslides may have been triggered to bury what was left of it. Within an hour of their return to Smithers, the party was on its way back to the States.
These events happened at the height of the Cold War. Now, some 40 years later, as most of the evidence has been wiped out many questions remain unanswered. How the aircraft could have flown on for over 200 miles before hitting a mountain is still a mystery. Unless one of the pilots did stay behind and kept the plane flying? This might explain the rumors of a skeleton found in the wreckage. According to the Second Engineer, Lt. Poole, the crew jumped from the plane when it was flying at approximately 3,000ft. But after a flight of 200 miles the plane hit the mountain at the 6,000ft level. Before the crew jumped, the aircraft was put on auto pilot to fly southwest. Why was the plane flying inland in a northeast direction? The reason why it was so far off its course might be due to the poor weather and the loss of the instruments.
Most of the people involved in reaching the wreckage are either unable or unwilling to give much information. Captain Bailey, the only person who took part in both the 1953 and 1954 trips, died around 1956 in a plane crash while flying a T-33. Both the local men who accompanied the the US service men are dead now. Pioneer and well known guideJack Lee, who accompanied the first mission, died in February 1986. Hunter Simpson who watched the demolition of the wreckage, died in the mid 1970's.
And that nuclear bomb? Well, as it blew up on impact with the water, only pieces remain on the bottom of the ocean.