Jul 31, 2020
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Greenland “fading”. How the United States lost its nuclear bomb

In 2020, Danish media were alarmed by the fate of the American Thule airbase in Greenland. According to the authors, new Russian developments in the field of weapons may allow a lightning-fast strike on the Greenland base, whose radars? that are part of the anti-missile shield are in no way protected from the new threat.

Nuclear "fist" in the air

It is now fashionable to frighten with an angry "Russian bear" in the West. But, objectively speaking, the Russian threat to Greenland is something hypothetical. Unlike the real problems that the US military knows how to create.

The Thule base area is one of the few places on Earth where a nuclear bomb has disappeared without a trace. For more than half a century, the fate of the charge has remained unknown.

In 1961, US Air Force Strategic Command launched Operation Chromed Dome. Its essence was that B-52 bombers with thermonuclear weapons on board carried out combat patrols, being in readiness to strike the USSR. Finding a large number of strategic bombers in the air made it possible to reduce the time for striking Soviet targets, and also excluded the possibility of destroying the B-52 by a preemptive strike at airfields.

One of the patrol routes took place in the area of ​​the Thule base in Greenland. Visual monitoring of the state of the station, which was the key object of the missile attack warning system? had to exclude a sudden "blinding" blow to the Greenland base, which could give the USSR an advantage in time.

Flight routes as of 1966.
Flight routes as of 1966. Photo:

Wild Mountain and Palomares

By 1968, the Chromed Dome had seriously compromised itself. Two B-52s were lost as a result of disasters, to which the Soviet Union had nothing to do.

And if the incident over the Wild Mountain in the USA in 1964 was quickly hushed up, the crash over Palomares in Spain in 1966 turned into a scandal. The destroyed nuclear bombs have led to serious radiation contamination of the area. Another charge fell into the sea, and the divers had to look for it for two months.

After that, the US Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara offered to finish with the "Dome". He pointed out that the basis of the strategic forces are now missiles, and the B-52 constantly dangling in the air only irritates the allies.

As a result, however, the flights were retained, having seriously reduced their number.

Major d'Amario loves comfort

On the morning of January 21, 1968, a B-52G, hull number 58-0188, belonging to the 528th Squadron of the 380th Bomber Wing of the United States Strategic Aviation, flew on combat patrol from Plattsburgh Air Base, New York.

Boeing B-52G, of the same type as the victim.
Boeing B-52G, of the same type as the victim. Photo:

The crew commander was John Hogg In addition to five full-time crew members, a shift navigator went on the flight Chris Curtis and reserve pilot Alfred d'Amario... Major d'Amario loved to serve and fly in comfort. During takeoff, he took the place of the navigator-instructor in the aft part of the lower deck. In preparation for the flight, the reserve pilot put three fabric-covered foam cushions on the heating vent under the seat, and one more shortly after departure.

The flight took place normally. True, during refueling, the autopilot refused and the procedure had to be carried out during manual piloting, but for experienced pilots this did not become a problem. Shortly thereafter, John Hogue gave the order to his co-pilot, Captain Leonard Svitenko go on vacation. His place was taken by Alfred d'Amario.

As already mentioned, d'Amario loved comfort. It seemed to him that it was cold in the cab, and he opened the valve for air intake from the engine air path to the heating system. However, there was a technical malfunction: the hot engine air that went into the heating system was not cooled, and the cold in the cabin began to turn into tropical heat.

Svitenko did not have enough catapult

The foam cushions, carefully folded by D'Amario under the seat, caught fire. In order to understand what was happening and find the source of the ignition, the navigator had to search the plane twice. When he finally got to the pillows, it burned so badly that two onboard fire extinguishers did not help.

The B-52 commander realized that things were bad, and requested an emergency landing in Tula: the bomber was at that moment 140 kilometers from the Greenland base. But the situation developed rapidly. A few minutes later, the plane went out of electricity, and there was so much smoke that the pilots could not see the readings of the instruments.

Haug realized that it would not be possible to save the plane, and gave the order to leave. For Leonard Svitenko, everything ended tragically: the second pilot, who was resting at the time of the emergency, did not have enough ejection seat. Getting out of the bomber through the lower hatch, he sustained a fatal head injury.

The B-52 fell on the ice of the Severnaya Zvezda Bay about 11 km from the base's runway. The usual explosive in the fuses of nuclear bombs detonated, but, fortunately, the bombs themselves did not explode.

Aerial photography of the crash site.  The black spot is ice darkened by burning fuel.  Place of the fall - above /
Aerial photography of the crash site. The black spot is ice darkened by burning fuel. Place of the fall - above / Photo:

Load radiation in barrels

However, the situation was still extremely difficult: explosions scattered radioactive substances around the neighborhood, and the debris of the B-52 went under water.

In addition to the unfortunate Svitenko, the other six pilots survived. D'Amario felt best of all, having landed with a parachute right on the territory of the base. Chris Curtis, on the other hand, had to wait for help for almost a day in a thirty-degree frost. He got hypothermia, but still survived.

The report sent to Washington from the Thule base can hardly be called reassuring: it is not known where the uranium cores of the bombs are, an area 4.8 km long and 1.6 km wide is insanely "phonit". About 2,500 NATO specialists were dispatched to clean up the consequences of the accident in Greenland. For nine months, they collected plane wreckage and contaminated ice.

Bomb debris was sent to the Pantex plant in Texas for examination, aircraft remains to Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee, and burial tanks to the Savannah River nuclear repository in South Carolina.

"At the bottom in a heap of massive debris"

To search for the cores of the bombs at the bottom, a strictly secret expedition was organized using the Star III manned vehicle. Its results became known from documents published in Denmark in 2009. In short, after counting the collected debris, the Americans came to the conclusion that the main "filling" of one of the bombs was never found. And then they acted practically in Russian, writing in the report that what they were looking for, obviously, “lies at the bottom in a heap of massive debris”. Those who don't believe can dive in and see for themselves.

Not without political consequences. The catastrophe happened on the territory of Denmark, which belongs to Greenland. Not long before that, the country's authorities had declared their entire territory a nuclear-free zone, and suddenly something like that. Prime Minister Jens Otto Krag convinced compatriots that what happened was just an accident, and not the consequences of the pro-American line. Curiously, just two days later, the Krag party lost the elections and lost power for the first time in 20 years.

Loading contaminated ice into tanks.
Loading contaminated ice into tanks. Photo:

Only thirty years later, in the 1990s, it turned out that the Danish government was hanging on the citizens' ears. Ever since the early 1960s, as part of Operation Ice Worm, the Americans have been building positions under the Greenland ice sheet for missiles aimed at the USSR. The project was curtailed not because of Denmark's nuclear-free status, but because of the instability of the glacier, which, with its movements, ruled out the implementation of the US command's plan.

In recent years, the United States has reiterated its talk of expanding its base in Greenland to "counter Russia in the Arctic." It seems that someone began to forget the sad experience of half a century ago. And after the third disaster of the B-52, Operation Chromed Dome was closed completely, because the next time it could already "boom" with all its might.

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