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FIELD NOTES: The First Broken Arrow

In 1953, a Texas businessman named Ellis Hall disappeared while flying his small plane over the Canadian bush. A search and rescue effort was mounted and eventually located a tangled mess of wreckage protruding from the side of Mount Kologet. However, it quickly became evident to the search team that the wreck was much too large to be Hall's bush plane. 

When photos of the site were examined by aviation experts, the plane was identified as a B-36 "Peacemaker" that had been lost during a top-secret training mission three years earlier. 

The B-36 was a long-range strategic bomber designed during WWII as a replacement for the B-29; specifically, a replacement capable of bombing Germany from air bases in the United States. By the time the plane came into service, the war in Europe was over, and its six piston-push-engines supplemented with four ramjets were a maintenance nightmare and functionally inferior to rapidly advancing jet-powered aircraft. Still, in the early '50s, before the B-52 entered the arsenal, the B-36 was the United States' primary strategic bomber and method for delivering nuclear weapons. 

The Peacemaker the search party found on the Canadian mountainside took off from Eielson Air Force Base in Alaska on February 13, 1950. It was a secret mission to test the readiness of U.S. forces to combat threats from Russian strategic bombers. The plan was for the plane to fly south and make a simulated bombing run on San Francisco. But it developed engine trouble over the Canadian coast, and not wanting to crash in a foreign country with a nuclear weapon on board, the crew was ordered to release its 30-kiloton bomb over the ocean and bail out over Canada. Twelve of the 17 crew members were rescued, but the aircraft and five of the crew were not found.

The twelve surviving crew members agreed that the bomb had been jettisoned over the ocean and that it had not been armed during the training mission, so there was no chance of an explosion. But, there was enough variation in their accounts that the military could not say with 100% certainty that the bomb fell into the ocean. Unfortunately, the pilot and co-pilot, the two crew members who could have verified that fact, were among the missing, and extensive scanning of the ocean floor failed to locate the bomb in the area where it was supposedly dropped. 

To put to rest any lingering doubts about the fate of the nuclear weapon, the Defense Department launched two ground missions to examine the wreck. The first mission wandered the rugged Canadian bush for two weeks without locating the plane, a testament to the remote site (or possibly a covert misdirection). The second mission located the wreckage, removed "sensitive materials," and blew up what remained. Exactly what they found at the crash site and what materials were removed, though, was classified. 

There was speculation at the time that the bomb failed to release over the ocean, crashed with the plane, and was actually found by the first team and recovered by the second. The bomb is still officially listed as one of six "lost" U.S. nuclear weapons or "broken arrows." To paraphrase the 1996 movie of the same name, I'm not sure whether it's more disturbing that we lost a nuclear weapon or that it happens often enough that we have a name for it.


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