The 1966 Palomares B-52 Crash

Harrison Williams
March 17, 2018

Submitted as coursework for PH241, Stanford University, Winter 2018

B-52 Crash

Fig. 1: The B28RI nuclear bomb recovered from the ocean at a depth of about 2,850 feet. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

On January 16, 1966, a B-52 Stratofortress took off from North Carolina on a course towards Europe. The bomber was part of Operation Chrome Dome, an effort during the height of the Cold War to provide 24/7 rapid-response nuclear capabilities around the world. Over 24 hours later, as Major Larry Messinger attempted a routine mid-air refuel operation over the coast of Spain, a miscommunication between the pilots of both aircraft caused the bomber to impact the belly of the KC-135 refueling aircraft. [1] The impact caused jet fuel to rain down upon the bomber, and both aircraft exploded. The plane was carrying four mk28-type hydrogen bombs, each capable of releasing 1.45 megatons of explosive power, or 100 times as much as the bomb dropped on Hiroshima. [1] Fortunately, all four of the bombs were not armed, thus there was no danger of nuclear detonation. Of the seven crew members aboard the bomber, three were killed in the explosion while four managed to eject. All crew members were accounted for by evening on January 17th. [1]

Bomb Recovery

Of the four bombs carried by the B-52, one was discovered intact and unexploded. The explosive core of two bombs detonated, scattering plutonium around the surrounding farmland. These two bombs acted essentially as 'dirty bombs', scattering radioactivity across a large area. [2] After days of searching, the fourth bomb remained lost. However, after an interview with a fisherman that witnessed the crash, engineers were able to determine that the bomb fell into the ocean with its parachute trailing behind, appearing to be a dead man attached to his parachute. [1] After nearly two months of searching the ocean floor with submersibles, the missing bomb was finally located 2,550 feet below sea level. However, while the bomb was being winched to the surface, the cable connected to the bomb snapped, causing the bomb to fall another approximately 350 feet below the point of initial discovery. [1] Finally, after an unmanned recovery vehicle became tangled in the bomb's parachute, both the vehicle and the bomb were lifted to the surface together (see Fig. 1).

Lasting Effects

During the hasty cleanup following the B-52 crash, the personnel in charge of removing the soil contaminated due to the explosion of two of the nuclear bombs were not properly informed of the radiation levels present, nor given proper safety equipment. In fact, they were given no safety equipment. [2] Most likely in an effort to keep the crash quiet and avoid public backlash, the military denied there was any risk of radiation poisoning at the crash site despite radiation levels near the crash site being "so high it sent the military's monitoring equipment off the scales". [2] Many men involved in the cleanup have developed cancer. Of the 40 veterans involved in the cleanup that Phillips was able to identify, 21 had cancer. However, since the military maintains that there was no evidence of dangerously high radiation, these veterans have been denied health care coverage and disability compensation from the Department of Veterans Affairs. [2] While it is impossible to determine whether or not these men developed cancer as a direct result of radiation exposure, or through natural causes, it is still important to recognize the failure of the military to properly equip the men while handling radioactive waste. For example, according to Larry L. Slone, a military police officer at the time, he was given clear plastic bags and told to pick up radioactive fragments with his bare hands. When they checked him with a Geiger counter, it "went clear off the scale". [2]

© Harrison Williams. The author warrants that the work is the author's own and that Stanford University provided no input other than typesetting and referencing guidelines. The author grants permission to copy, distribute and display this work in unaltered form, with attribution to the author, for noncommercial purposes only. All other rights, including commercial rights, are reserved to the author.


[1] R. C Maydew and J. Bush, America's Lost H-Bomb: Palomares, Spain, 1966 (Sunflower Univerity Prress, 1997).

[2] D. Philipps, "Decades Later, Sickness Among Airmen After a Hydrogen Bomb Accident," New York Times, 19 Jun 16.