The term “Broken Arrow” refers to more than a bad John Travolta movie. In military terminology, a Broken Arrow refers to a significant nuclear event — one that won’t trigger a nuclear war — but is a danger to the public through an accidental or unexplained nuclear detonation, a non-nuclear detonation or burning of a nuclear weapon, radioactive contamination from a nuclear weapon, the loss in transit of a nuclear asset (but not from theft), and/or the jettisoning of a nuclear weapon.
In 1980, the Department of Defense issued a report titled “Narrative Summaries of Accidents Involving U.S. Nuclear Weapons.” Keep in mind, this details events only before 1980. There have been other incidents and scandals since then, not covered here.
The DoD report was released after public outcry following the 1980 Damascus Incident, covered in detail by Eric Schlosser’s 2014 book Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Incident, and the Illusion of Safety. In this instance, DoD defined an “accident involving nuclear weapons” as:
An unexpected event involving nuclear weapons or nuclear weapons components that results in any of the following:
•Accidental or unauthorized launching or firing, or use by U.S. forces or supported allied forces of a nuclear-capable weapon system which could create the risk of an outbreak of war
• Nuclear detonation
• Non-nuclear detonation or burning of a nuclear weapon or radioactive weapon component, including a fully-assembled nuclear weapon, an unassembled nuclear weapon component, or a radioactive nuclear weapon component
• Radioactive contamination
• Seizure, theft, or loss of a nuclear weapon or radioactive nuclear weapon component, including jettisoning
• Public hazard, actual or implied
If the event occurred overseas, the location was not disclosed, except for the Thule, Greenland and Palomares, Spain incidents. There were no unintended nuclear explosions. The report included incidents from the Air Force and Navy, but not the Marine Corps, as they didn’t have nuclear weapons in peace time and not from the Army because they “never experienced an event serious enough to warrant inclusion.”
Somehow, the Army — of all branches — was the only branch not to lose a nuclear weapon over the course of 30 years.
1. February 13, 1950 – Pacific Ocean off the coast of British Columbia, Canada
A B-36 en route from Eielson AFB (near Moose Creek, Alaska) to Carswell AFB (Fort Worth, Texas) on a simulated combat profile mission developed serious mechanical difficulties six hours into the flight, forcing the crew to shut down three engines at 12,000 feet. Level flight could not be maintained due to icing, so the crew dumped the weapon from 8,000 feet over the Pacific Ocean. A bright flash occurred on impact, followed by the sound and shock wave. Only the high explosives on the weapon detonated. The crew flew over Princess Royal Island, where they bailed out. The plane’s wreckage was later found on Vancouver Island.
2. April 11, 1950 – Manzano Base, New Mexico
After leaving Kirtland AFB (Albuquerque, New Mexico) at 9:38 pm, a B-29 bomber crashed into a mountain three minutes later on Manzano Base, killing the crew. The bomb case for the weapon was demolished and some of the high explosive (HE) burned in the subsequent gasoline fire. Other HE was recovered undamaged, as well as four detonators for the nuclear asset. There was no contamination and the recovered components of the nuclear weapon were returned to the Atomic Energy Commission. The nuclear capsule was on board the aircraft, but was not inserted, as per Strategic Air Command (SAC) regulations, so a nuclear detonation was not possible.
3. July 13, 1950 – Lebanon, Ohio
A B-50 on a training mission from Biggs AFB, Texas flying at 7,000 feet on a clear day suddenly nosed down and flew into the ground near Mrs. Martha Bishop’s farm on Old Hamilton Road, killing four officers and twelve Airmen. The HE detonated on impact, but there was no nuclear capsule aboard the aircraft.
4. August 5, 1950 – Fairfield Suisun AFB, California
A B-29 carrying a weapon but no capsule experienced two runway propellers and landing gear retraction difficulties on takeoff from the base. The crew attempted an emergency landing and crashed an burned. The fire was fought for 12-15 minutes before the weapon’s high explosive detonated, killing 19 crew members and rescue personnel — including Brig. Gen. Robert F. Travis — who was flying the weapon to Guam at the request of Gen. Douglas MacArthur. The base was renamed Travis AFB in his honor.
5. November 10, 1950 – “Over Water, outside United States”
Because of an in-flight emergency, a weapon with no capsule of nuclear material was jettisoned over water from an altitude of 10,500 feet. A high explosive detonation was observed.
6. March 10, 1956 – Mediterranean Sea
A B-47 was one of four scheduled non-stop deployment aircraft sent from MacDill AFB, Florida to an overseas air base. Take off and its first refueling went as expected. The second refueling point was over the Mediterranean at 14,000 feet. Visibility was poor at 14,500 but the aircraft — carrying two nuclear capsules — never made contact with the tanker. An extensive search was mounted but no trace of the missing aircraft or its crew were ever found.
7. July 27, 1956 – “Overseas Base”
A B-47 with no weapons aboard was making “touch and go” landings during a training exercise when it suddenly lost control and slid off the runway, crashing into a storage igloo containing several nuclear weapons. No bombs burned or detonated and there was no contamination.
8. May 22, 1957 – Kirtland AFB, New Mexico
A B-36 ferrying a weapon from Biggs AFB, Texas to Kirtland AFB approached Kirtland at 1,700 feet when a weapon dropped from the bomb bay, taking the bomb bay doors with it. The weapon’s parachutes deployed but did not fully stop the fall because of the plane’s low altitude. The bomb hit 4.5 miles South of the Kirtland AFB control tower, detonating the high explosive on the weapon, making a crater 25 feet in diameter and 12 feet deep. Debris from the explosion scattered up to a mile away. Radiological surveys found no radiation except at the crater’s lip, where it was .5 milliroentgens (normal cosmic background radiation humans are exposed to every year is 200 milliroentgens).
9. July 28, 1957 – Atlantic Ocean
Two weapons were jettisoned off the East coast of the U.S. from a C-124 en route to Dover AFB, Delaware. Though three weapons and one nuclear capsule were aboard at the time, nuclear components were not installed on board. The craft experienced a loss of power from engines one and two and could not maintain level flight. The weapons were jettisoned at 4,500 feet and 2,500 feet – both are presumed to have hit the ocean and to have sunk immediately. The plane landed near Atlantic City, New Jersey with its remaining cargo. The two lost weapons were never recovered.
10. October 11, 1957 – Homestead AFB, Florida
A B-47 leaving Homestead AFB blew its tires during takeoff, crashing the plane into an uninhabited area only 3,800 feet from the end of the runway. The B-47 was ferrying a weapon and nuclear capsule. The weapon burned for five hours before it was cooled with water, but the weapon was intact. Even after two low intensity explosions, half the weapon was still intact. Everything was recovered and accounted for.
11. January 31, 1958 – “Overseas Base”
A B-47 with a weapon in strike configuration was making a simulated takeoff during an exercise when its rear wheel casting failed, causing the tail to hit the runway and a rupture to the fuel tank. The resulting fire burned for seven hours. Firemen fought the fire for ten minutes, then had to evacuate the area. There was no high explosive detonation but the area was contaminated after the crash, which was cleared after the wreckage was cleared.
12. February 5, 1958 – Savannah River, Georgia
A B-47 on a simulated combat mission out of Homestead AFB, Florida collided in mid-air with an F-86 Sabre near Savannah, Georgia at 3:30 am. The bomber tried three times to land at Hunter AFB, Georgia with the weapon on board but could not slow down enough to land safely. A nuclear detonation wasn’t possible because the nuclear capsule wasn’t on board the aircraft, but the high explosive detonation would still have done a lot of damage to the base. The weapon was instead jettisoned into nearby Wassaw Sound from 7,200 feet. it didn’t detonate and the weapon was never found.
13. March 11, 1958 – Florence, South Carolina
In late afternoon, four B-47s took off from Hunter AFB, GA en route to an overseas base. When they leveled off at 15,000 feet, one of them accidentally dropped its nuclear weapon into a field 6.5 miles from Florence, South Carolina — detonating the high explosive on impact — then returned to base. The nuclear capsule was not aboard the aircraft.
14. November 4, 1958 – Dyess AFB, Texas
A B-47 caught fire on takeoff, with three crew members successfully ejecting and one killed on impact from 1,500 feet. The high explosive detonated on impact, creating a crater 35 feet in diameter and six feet deep. Nuclear material was recovered near the crash site.
15. November 26, 1958 – Chennault AFB, Louisiana
A B-47 caught fire on the ground with a nuclear weapon on board. The fire destroyed the weapon and contaminated the aircraft wreckage.
16. January 18, 1959 – “Pacific Base”
An F-100 Super Sabre carrying a nuclear weapon in ground alert configuration caught fire after an explosion rocked its external fuel tanks on startup. A fire team put the fire out in seven minutes, with no contamination or cleanup problems.
17. July 6, 1959 – Barksdale AFB, Louisiana
A C-124 on a nuclear logistics mission crashed on take-off and it destroyed by a fire which also destroys the nuclear weapon. No detonation occurred but the ground beneath the weapon was contaminated with radioactivity.
18. September 25, 1959 – Off Whidbey Island, Washington
A U.S. Naby P-5M was abandoned in Puget Sound, Washington carrying an unarmed nuclear antisubmarine weapon, but the weapon was not carrying nuclear material. The weapon was not recovered.
19. October 15, 1959 – Hardinsberg, Kentucky
A B-52 left Columbus AFB, Mississippi and 2:30 pm CST as the the second position in a flight of two. A KC-135 tanker left Columbus AFB at 5:33 pn CST as the second tanker in flight of two, scheduled to refuel the B-52s. On a clear night near Hardinsberg, Kentucky at 32,000 feet, the two aircraft collided. Four crewmen on the B-52 were killed and the two nuclear weapons were recovered intact.
20. June 7, 1960 – McGuire AFB, New Jersey
A BOMARC supersonic ramjet missile in ready storage condition was destroyed after a high pressure helium tank exploded and ruptured the missile’s fuel tanks. The warhead was destroyed by the fire but the high explosive did not detonate and contamination was limited to the area beneath the weapon and the area where firefighting water drained off.
21. January 24, 1961 – Goldsboro, North Carolina
A B-52 on an airborne alert mission experienced structural failure of its right wing, resulting in two weapons separating from the aircraft during breakup between 2,000 and 10,000 feet and the deaths of three crewmembers. The parachute of the first bomb deployed successfully, and it was lightly damaged when it hit the ground. They hit the ground full force and broke apart. One of the weapons fell into “waterlogged farmland to a depth of 50 feet” and was not recovered. The Air Force later purchased land in this area and requires permission before digging nearby.
22. March 14, 1961 – Yuba City, California
A suddenly depressurized B-52 forced to descend to 10,000 feet and caused the bomber to run out of fuel. The crew bailed out, except for the aircraft commander, who steered it away from populated areas and bailed out at 4,000 feet. The two weapons aboard were torn from the aircraft upon ground impact with no explosive or nuclear detonation or contamination.
23. November 16, 1963 – Medina Base, Texas
123,000 pounds of high explosives from disassembled obsolete nuclear assets exploded at an Atomic Energy Commission storage facility. Since the nuclear components were elsewhere, there was no contamination and, amazingly, only three employees were injured.
24. January 13, 1964 – Cumberland, Maryland
A B-52 flying from Massachusetts to Turner AFB, Georgia crashed 17 miles southwest of Cumberland, Maryland carrying two nuclear weapons in tactical ferry configuration, but without electrical connections to the aircraft and the safeties turned on. Trying to climb to 33,000 feet to avoid severe turbulence, the bomber hit more turbulence, destroying the aircraft. Only the pilot and co-pilot survived the event, as the gunner and navigator ejected but were killed by exposure to sub-zero temperatures on the ground. The radar navigator went down with the bird. The weapons were found intact, but under inches of snow.
25. December 5, 1964 – Ellsworth AFB, South Dakota
Two Airmen respond to a security repair issue on a Minuteman I missile on strategic alert. During their work, a retrorocket below the missile’s re-entry vehicle fired, causing the vehicle to fall 75 feet to the floor of the silo, causing considerable damage to the vehicle structure and ripping it from the electronics on the missile. There was no detonation or contamination.
26. December 8, 1964 – Bunker Hill (now Grissom Air Reserve Base), Indiana
An SAC B-58 taxiing during an alert exercise lost control because of the jet blast from the aircraft in front of it combined with an icy runway. The B-58 slid off the runway, hitting runway fixtures, and caught fire as all three crew members began to abandon the aircraft. The navigator ejected but didn’t survive, and five nuclear weapons on board burned and the crash site was contaminated.
27. October 11, 1965 – Wright-Patterson AFB, Ohio
A C-124 being refueled caught fire, damaging the fuselage and the nuclear components the aircraft was hauling, contaminating the aircraft and the disaster response crews.
28. December 5, 1965 – “At Sea – Pacific”
An A-4 loaded with one nuclear weapon rolled off the elevator of an aircraft carrier and rolled into the sea. The pilot, aircraft and nuclear weapon were all lost more than 500 miles from land.
29. January 17, 1966 – Palomares, Spain
A B-52 bomber and KC-135 tanker collided during a routine high altitude air refueling operation, killing seven of the eleven crew members. The bomber carried four nuclear assets. One was recovered on land, another at sea, while the high explosive on other two exploded on impact with the ground, spreading radioactive material. 1400 tons of contaminated soil and vegetation were moved to the U.S. for storage as Spanish authorities monitored the cleanup operation. Palomares is still the most radioactive town in Europe.
30. January 21, 1968 – Thule, Greenland
A B-52 from Plattsburgh AFB, New York crashed and burned seven miles southwest of the runway while on approach to Thule AB, Greenland, killing one of its crew members. All four nuclear weapons carried by the bomber were destroyed by fire, contaminating the sea ice. 237,000 cubic feet of contaminated snow, ice, water, and crash debris were moved to the U.S. for storage over a four month cleanup operation as Danish authorities monitored the effort.
31. “Spring, 1968” – “At Sea, Atlantic”
“Details remain classified.”
32. September 19, 1980 – Damascus, Arkansas
During routine maintenance of a Titan II missile silo, an Airman dropped a tool, which fell and struck the missile, causing a leak in a pressurized fuel tank. The entire missile complex and surrounding area were evacuated with a team of specialists from Little Rock AFB called in for assessment. 8 1/2 hours after the initial damage, the fuel vapors exploded, killing one member of the team and injuring 21 other Air Force personnel. Somehow, the missile’s re-entry vehicle (and the warhead) was found intact, with no contamination.
Stockpiles of nuclear weapons in the global “Nuclear Club” of the U.S., Russia, the UK, France, China, Israel, India, Pakistan and North Korea number 15,600.
Below is a video detailing every nuclear blast ever detonated on Earth: