1950 Bomber Crash in BC
November 12, 1998
Local group revives memory of little-known U.S. bomber crash
TERRACE, B.C. (CP) -- A determined group of local citizens wants some answers about the mysterious crash near here almost five decades ago of a B-36 bomber carrying an inactive atomic bomb. The gigantic bomber -- 50 metres long with a 70-metre wingspan -- was apparently flying without a crew when it plowed into Mount Kolaget in the vast Coast Mountains range on Feb. 13, 1950.
It was carrying an inactive Mark IV Fat Man atomic bomb similar to one dropped on Nagasaki when it got into trouble over Hecate Strait, according to a U.S. military declassified report. Three engines were ablaze and the giant aircraft was losing altitude. Crew members dropped the bomb over the strait and bailed out.
It was the first time the United States lost a nuclear bomb in action and the incident is still classified as a "Broken Arrow" -- the U.S. military codeword for an accident involving nuclear weapons.
The U.S. military says the bomb was equipped with a lead dummy capsule rather than the plutonium one required to cause the atomic explosion. The crew of 17 bailed out over Princess Royal Island, south of Prince Rupert, B.C. Twelve were picked up but five were missing and presumed drowned. The Convair B-36 Peacemaker was flying from Eielson Airforce Base in Fairbanks, Alaska, to Fort Worth, Texas, simulating a combat bombing run.
Over the years, curiousity-seekers and aviation buffs have ventured to the site.
"There's been quite a bit of pillaging," said Doug Craig, a Whitehorse resident who's been to the site several times. "It's robbing the plane of its identifiable character." As recently as two months ago, a Terrace-based group flew to the site by helicopter and removed some 20-millimetre cannon turrets, the aircraft insignia and other items.
That pillaging drew the wrath of the provincial archaeology branch, because crash sites more than two years old are protected as "heritage wrecks."
To try to atone, Carl Healey and others who took part in the trip formed the Broken Arrow Aircraft Society. Their goal is to establish a permanent museum in Terrace commemorating the mysterious crash. Healey said they weren't aware of the law. "We just wanted to make sure this stuff didn't disappear altogether," he said.
They also want permission from the B.C. government to keep the artifacts and retrieve more next year. "This is the real thing," said Healey. "It's not science fiction. It's a real story. And it's our history."
They also hope to solve some mysteries. Did the plane really fly that distance with no one at the controls? Or did one of the pilots stay on board and go down with the plane?
One researcher, Dirk Septer of Telkwa, B.C., believes but can't confirm that the co-pilot stayed on board. He said there are unsubstantiated reports that the co-pilot's dog tag was found in the plane and that human remains were unearthed in 1997.
Did the plane carry the highly radioactive plutonium core necessary to make the bomb live? U.S. military officials have consistently denied that. At least one mystery was solved last year when Environment Canada officials tested the site and concluded there was no radiation contamination.
"This bomber's got a story to tell and it hasn't been told -- it's been kept a secret for so long," said Healey.
B-36 Bomber Crash in British Columbia
Further to the continuing story of the USAF SAC B-36 bomber which lost an atomic bomb beyond British Columbia, I should like to add some pertinant information, and bring the matter to a close. Although this was the first recorded loss of an atomic bomb by the United States, and certainly a serious accident, it was not as bad as has been made out in the press by a few interested individuals over the past few years.
USAF SAC bomber B-36B, s/n 44-92075, with only 185 flying hours on the airframe, belonged to the 436th Bomb Squadron of the 7th Bomb Wing at Carswell Air Force Base in Fort Worth, Texas. It had been sent to Alaska as part of an exercise to test the readi- ness of USAF bomber teams to drop nuclear weapons.
This was at a time when the Air Force still did not have custody of nuclear weapons. This is an important fact, as it shows that it is almost totally impossible for there to have been a nuclear capsule (the core of fissile material) on board the aircraft at the time of the crash. The MkIII bomb, identical to that dropped on Nagasaki, took many technicians a couple of days to assemble into strike configuration, thus further mitigating against an assembled bomb being present.
Captain Barry (29), the pilot, testified in secret that the bomb bay doors and salvo drop mechanism did not work the first time, but that the co-pilot was able to drop the load on the second try. The aircraft was some 3000m high, and the bomb was observed to have detonated at about 1200m. Barry then rang the alarm bell and everyone bailed out. The bomb type had a tamper of depleted uranium, and this was scattered over the Pacific in the storm. A radiological survey of the crash site in the bried summer of 1997 by the National Defence Directorate of Nuclear Safety found no sign of radiation other than the radium paint on the instrument panels.
US secrecy about the site itself was not due to the presence of an atomic bomb, it was due to the fact that the aircraft itself contained many secrets of the early nuclear age. The bomb sight and various nuclear weapons' tools for the bomb-armourer were considered far too sensitive to leave for anyone to find. The USAF also feared that certain records of the training operation itself would have survived, and this would reveal US nuclear war plans.
The records of the crash and the USAF investigation have been declassified and are now available for public inspection at the USAF Historical Agency on Maxwell Air Force Base in Montgomery, Alabama. The reccords are sorted by date, so this item is found on the file for 14 February 1950.
As an aside, this and several other accidents involving US bombers over Canada will be covered in a chapter on accidents in my upcoming book: "U.S. NUCLEAR WEAPONS IN CANADA".