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Lost: One H-Bomb. Call Owner

After 47 Years, a WMD Remains AWOL

By Clark Rumrill
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, April 17, 2005; Page D01

Just after midnight on Feb. 5, 1958, two U.S. Air Force jets, each traveling 500 mph, collided 35,000 feet over the Georgia countryside. Improbably, all four crew members survived and the accident might have passed into dim memory if not for the thermonuclear weapon jettisoned off Tybee Island, Ga.

The bomb is still there.


Howard Richardson, now a retired Air Force colonel, with a B-47 model. He landed the bomber safely after it was heavily damaged during a routine practice mission that went horribly awry. (Rogelio Solis -- AP)

After a weeks-long search, it was "declared irretrievably lost on 16 April 1958," the Air Force reported four years ago in an assessment of whether to conduct a new search and recovery mission. It concluded that "it is in the best interest of the public and the environment to leave the bomb in its resting-place." The Navy Supervisor of Salvage, the report noted, didn't think the bomb could be found. Energy Department engineers' best guess was that it lay "buried nose-down, probably 5-15 feet below the seabed."

Clearly, the Air Force would have been glad to let it go at that. However, it did not count on the determination of Derek Duke, a 60-year-old retired Air Force officer who lives nearby and for more than six years has been searching for the bomb in the waters around Tybee Island, about 16 miles from Savannah. Responding to Duke's claim that he had found an area of high radiation the Air Force returned last September to look again.

The report on the new search has not been released. Maj. Stephanie Holcombe, an Air Force spokeswoman, says the "coordination process" is proceeding slowly but she hopes the report will be out by the end of this month.

It would close another chapter in the saga of Bomb No. 47782. The story, based on interviews with the three living crew members, the Air Force accident report and other Defense and Energy Department documents, begins with a routine Cold War training mission gone awry.

3:58 p.m., Feb. 4, 1958

On a clear day, pilots departing to the north from Homestead Air Force Base in Florida occasionally can see a Cape Canaveral rocket launch, particularly spectacular from the air.

But not on this February day. Maj. Howard Richardson, 36, and his two-man crew take off in a U.S. Strategic Air Command bomber, and turn west toward New Orleans.

The B-47 is on a two-plane practice mission designed to mimic the requirements of wartime attacks on targets in the Soviet Union. Typically these flights include an aerial refueling, a round trip of about 5,000 miles at speeds up to 600 mph and an electronic "bomb drop" scored by a ground station in Europe or North America. To add verisimilitude to the SAC exercises, the bombers are often "attacked" along the way by Air Force fighters.

On this mission, the B-47 carries in its bomb bay an 11-foot-7-inch-long, 7,600-pound Mk 15 Mod 0 thermonuclear weapon, another touch of realism, although the bombs on SAC training runs usually do not contain a full load of fissionable uranium or plutonium.

Over the Gulf of Mexico, it tops off its fuel tanks, a delicate maneuver. Near New Orleans, Richardson turns north and flies to a point near the Canadian border, then turns south to make a bombing run on the radar scoring facility at Radford, Va. The B-47 drops an electronic "bomb" and heads toward home. After covering 4,000 miles in eight hours, the crew is ready to relax for the last several hundred miles. Richardson is assured by a message from headquarters that everything south of Virginia is friendly territory and "enemy" fighters will not operate there.

But at Charleston Air Force Base in South Carolina, Lt. Clarence Stewart, 23, two other pilots and three crew chiefs, are in the alert shack near the end of the runway. During a typical 12-hour tour, they will play cards, read, sleep, drink coffee and wait for the horn to go off.

Their instructions are that they can attack Richardson's plane any time before it lands in Florida. Their three F-86L aircraft are fueled, armed and connected to power carts, ready for the start of a near-supersonic ascent to a game of cat-and-mouse six miles overhead.

12:09 a.m., Feb. 5, 1958

The horn in the alert shack blares. Air Defense Control radar has picked up a single plane about 180 miles to the north. It fails to spot the second B-47 flying in the mission. The F-86 crew chiefs race outside, the pilots strap in, and in 50 seconds the turbines are turning. The planes are airborne about three minutes later.

Radar ground control directs the pilots to a point several thousand feet above and about 15 miles behind Richardson's oblivious B-47. This brings the bomber within airborne radar range and permits the fighters to gain enough speed to overtake it. With the target in range, the F-86 pilot looks down at his radar scope to plan the attack. If he looks up to check the sky around him, he could lose the target's track.

Stewart's F-86 locks onto a plane. But his radar does not spot the second plane, the one ground radar also missed. Tracking the B-47 several thousand yards ahead, he is unaware he is descending on Richardson's plane directly in front of him. Feeling turbulence, Stewart looks up from the radar screen -- it is a bright moonlit night and visibility is excellent -- and sees the sky is "filled with airplane." His reflexes, providentially, tell him to roll his plane to the right.

The ground station records a distinct radio "click" as the planes collide.

Flight Paths

Maj. Howard Richardson and Lt. Clarence Stewart were born and raised in Mississippi and their lifelines may have crossed before that night in 1958.

Richardson's father practiced medicine in rural Winston County, delivering several thousand babies, starting in 1907. Stewart's mother, born in Winston County in 1910, before the state kept birth records, could well have been one of those babies.

In any case, the two young men both developed an interest in flying.

Discussing his career at his home outside Jackson, Miss., a year ago, Richardson says he was a college student when the United States entered World War II. He joined the Army in late 1942, took pilot training and was stationed in England as a B-17G pilot. He flew 35 combat missions over France and Germany in a bomber named "Mississippi Miss." After the war, he received a degree from Mississippi State University and joined the FBI. While he was in agent training at the FBI Academy in Quantico, the Air Force offered him a regular commission and a career in flying. He returned to active duty in 1947.

Stewart, on the other hand, just looked up at the sky one day in 1948 and found his calling.

"When I was 14, I was plowing a field behind a mule in the Mississippi Delta and a crop-dusting plane came over," he says over lunch near his home in Fort Walton Beach, Fla. "We didn't see many planes in those days and it scared the living [expletive] out of my mule. Right then I decided being a pilot would be a whole lot more fun than using a mule's [behind] for a compass the rest of my life."

He located the crop-duster's pilot and signed on with him to do odd jobs. By 16 he had learned to fly and undertook 30 or 40 crop-dusting assignments, mostly on weekends.

He went on to Sunflower Junior College in Moorhead, where one night in 1953, Stewart says, he and several acquaintances heard that an alligator had been caught in the nearby countryside. They purchased it, although memories differ on the price. Stewart remembers $5 but his friend Thomas Taylor, a retired county agricultural agent living outside Greenwood, Miss., recalls$10. One night shortly thereafter, between the first and second acts of the Sunflower spring operetta, the alligator was released into the school fishpond. (This fine body of water covers about two acres and can be seen to this day on the campus of what has been renamed Mississippi Delta Community College.) Word got around, and the third act of the operetta had to be canceled when everyone raced to the pond to see if there actually was an alligator in it. There was.

One thing led to another, Stewart says, and his academic deferment from Korean War duty suddenly became inoperative. He volunteered for the Air Force, went to flying school, thrived, and some years later wound up in the moonlit sky over Georgia on a cold winter night.

12:33:30 a.m., Feb. 5, 1958

The pilot and co-pilot of the B-47 see a bright flash as a tremendous jolt rocks the plane. Calipers in the navigator's hand bounce to the floor. A look from the pilots' position, assisted by the bright moonlight, shows the far right engine canted up at a 30-degree angle and the right external fuel tank missing.

The collision rips the left wing off the F-86. When the fuel accumulation tank bursts, the right wing is blown off. Stewart, startled to realize he is flying a wingless aircraft, ejects.

Richardson and his crew are as prepared as any B-47 crew in the Air Force for an in-flight emergency. Three months before, Richardson and co-pilot Robert Lagerstrom say, they came in third -- out of 1,000 crews -- in the Strategic Air Command Bombing and Navigation Competition. Richardson has clocked more than 1,000 hours in the aircraft, served as an instructor pilot and is well acquainted with the capabilities and peculiarities of the B-47.

The severely misaligned engine is still producing power, causing the plane to roll. Richardson cuts the fuel to it, then drops the left external fuel tank to better trim the aircraft. He takes the B-47 down to 20,000 feet, cuts the speed, extends the flaps and lowers the wheels to determine if he can land safely. The plane remains stable at 240 miles an hour and Richardson heads for nearby Hunter Air Force Base outside Savannah.

The Hunter tower advises that repair work has left an 18-inch drop at either end of the runway. If the B-47 lands short, the landing gear and dangling engine could snag, sending the 7,600-pound payload hurtling through the cockpit and down the runway at 200-plus mph. To avoid such an undesirable outcome, at about 1:10 a.m. Richardson informs SAC headquarters he'll ditch the bomb in the Atlantic. Pilots, like ship captains, have wide latitude in safety matters, and he does not feel obliged to wait for a reply. Moments after he pitches it into the saltwater near Tybee Island, SAC tells him to drop it 20 miles out.

Losing almost four tons of weapon lowers the projected landing speed and makes the B-47 easier to control, but the landing still is anything but routine. Richardson comes in at about 225 mph, 80 mph faster than normal at that weight, using full rudder and holding the right wing as high as possible to keep the damaged engine from dragging. The plane glances off the runway, becoming airborne again. The 16-foot-diameter runway-brake parachute is deployed in the air, a use for which it was not designed, and the plane hits the runway a second time and slows.

("We turned off the runway, shut down the engines and got the hell out of there," co-pilot Lagerstrom says .)

It is 1:33 a.m.

Stewart, meanwhile, is about 35,000 feet over Sylvania, Ga., in minus-50-degree air, wearing a thin flying suit and no gloves -- they have holes and Stewart had taken them off so they wouldn't snag on the radar control knob. The ejection system is designed to open his parachute at about 12,000 feet, but he isn't counting on it. He pulls the ripcord just after ejecting and is rewarded with a very long, very cold ride east across the Savannah River to a spot two miles west of Garnett, S.C. Although he has scant protection from the cold, he does have an oxygen bottle to help him breathe in the thin atmosphere. In about 30 minutes he travels six miles vertically and 22 miles horizontally.

As Stewart describes it, he touches down "in a little clearing in the biggest damn swamp in South Carolina," a lucky landing, but the temperature is just 35 degrees, according to the Air Force accident report. He inflates his life raft, turns it upside down and huddles beneath it, wrapped in his parachute. After several hours he hears an aircraft and fires the flare gun in his survival kit. His frozen fingers fumble and the flare barely misses his toes before plowing into the parachute. The plane fails to spot this interesting fiasco, but the ruckus does awaken a sleeping dog.

In due course forest ranger Andy Walker appears, convinced he's caught a poacher. By sunrise Stewart is wrapped in a blanket next to a wood stove, drinking some fine, untaxed South Carolina whiskey.

Because long-distance calls are expensive and because he considers the matter official government business, Stewart calls Charleston AFB collect to report his survival. Citing regulations, the base operator refuses to accept the call. Walker graciously foots the bill for the call and drives Stewart to the Walterboro hospital, where his hands are soaked in ice water -- appropriate treatment for frostbite. There an Air Force helicopter fetches him and returns him to his base.

Stewart remains in the hospital for a month while doctors work to save his badly swollen and discolored fingers. At one point they recommend amputating all or parts of five of them, a prospect that so horrifies him, Stewart says, that he threatens to desert from the hospital.

In addition to defending his fingers, Stewart must face an accident board, a proceeding designed to prevent future accidents rather than affix individual responsibility. He is not convinced of the board's benign purpose. "What they really wanted to do was fry my young [posterior]," he says.

That becomes impossible when the device that recorded his plane's radar images is found five weeks later and several miles away. It was part of the canopy assembly and had been blown out of the aircraft during ejection. The device confirms that the F-86's radar had indeed focused on the B-47 farthest away and somehow "missed" Richardson's looming aircraft.

One might imagine that a plane with both wings missing would smash into the ground and disintegrate. In fact, Stewart's F-86 did not. The tail surfaces apparently provided some gliding capability and, bizarrely, the aircraft hit the ground almost horizontally four miles from Sylvania, near Whitehill, Ga.

That Pesky Nuke

After 47 years, the Mk 15, a thermonuclear weapon with a design power at least 60 times the Hiroshima bomb, remains underwater within perhaps 16 miles of downtown Savannah.

Despite adamant denials by the Air Force that the bomb is a threat, Derek Duke says, "It's still out there and anything could happen in the future. Maybe terrorists could come up with a new technology that would let them do with it as they wish."

(The bomb off Tybee Island wasn't the only nuclear weapon to be dropped unintentionally by a U.S. Air Force plane. Air Force records outline three refueling incidents involving nuclear-armed bombers that led to the unscheduled release of eight weapons.

(The most publicized incident took place in January 1966, during the refueling of a B-52 over Palomares, Spain, and killed seven of 11 crew members. Of the B-52's four weapons, one parachuted to earth and was recovered intact; two hit land and were destroyed when their high-explosive triggers went off, spreading plutonium dust over several hundred acres; and one landed in the Mediterranean and was recovered by a midget sub several months later.)

The Air Force Nuclear Weapons and Counterproliferation Agency, in an April 12, 2001, report on the possible recovery of the Tybee weapon, states that it contains an unspecified amount of uranium and 400 pounds of high explosives.

That sounds ominous, but weapons-grade uranium is a strange substance. If present in more than a specific critical mass it explodes spontaneously, with massive power and the familiar mushroom cloud. The radiation given off by a less-than-critical mass of weapons-grade uranium, however, is primarily alpha particles, which "can't penetrate tissue paper," according to Billy W. Mullins, former associate director of nuclear and counterproliferation for the Air Force. He adds that low radioactivity of subcritical weapons-grade uranium would make it unsuitable for use in a terrorist's "dirty bomb" should the Tybee bomb ever be dug up.

In addition, while the design of the weapon has not been made public, evidence leans toward it being a gun-type nuclear weapon. To explode this type of bomb, a capsule containing one subcritical piece of uranium is fired into another, with their combined mass setting off the fission reaction. The nuclear safety technique of choice through 1957-58 was to keep the core of fissionable material (the "capsule") separate from the body of the weapon. In wartime, a second capsule could be inserted promptly in a quick-opening aperture.

Before that fateful flight, Richardson signed a receipt for the Mk 15 cautioning him not to "allow any active capsule to be inserted into it at any time." That supports the Air Force assertion in 2001 that the weapon had a removable capsule. And Richardson strongly maintains that for the training mission he did not receive a nuclear capsule.

Without the second capsule, any danger still presented by the Tybee bomb is from the 400 pounds of conventional explosives or from humans somehow ingesting uranium that might escape from the bomb and its silt prison.

The initial 1958 search for the weapon covered an area of three square miles and lasted nine weeks before the bomb was declared "irretrievably lost." The same area was the site of the 1996 Summer Olympics yachting competition.

The second search, in September 2004, was undertaken in response to Duke's assertion that he had found a hot spot of radiation near where the bomb is believed to have fallen.

Although the final report from the interagency team has not yet been released, the Associated Press reports that an April 4 letter to a Georgia newspaper from Col. James DeFrank, the Air Force deputy director of public affairs, said no "significant" levels of radiation were detected. The team reportedly concentrated its efforts in an area the size of a football field.

Silvered Wings

Clarence Stewart went on to fly 130 1/2 combat missions in Southeast Asia, he says, won the Silver Star and became a fighter squadron commander. After serving for more than 21 years, he retired, owned several restaurants, bought and sold Florida land and gained local renown for his creative services to the English language.

Grateful for his rescue from the Carolina swamp, he showed Andy Walker his appreciation by inviting him to his wedding and going hunting with him regularly over the years.

Howard Richardson became a B-47 squadron commander, moved on to B-52s and became commander of the Air Force Nuclear Weapons School. He earned an MBA and served in senior financial management positions with the Air Force, retiring as a full colonel after 31 years of service.

For bringing the B-47 and its crew back safely, Richardson was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross. The Air Force later contended the nuclear weapon was dropped at SAC's instruction, an assertion the pilot quietly but firmly disputes.

He has on his wall at home a framed copy of Atomic Energy Commission form AL-569, revised 8-57, acknowledging his receipt on Feb. 4, 1958, of weapon serial number 47782.

The form provides him, prophetically, with an office to contact in case the bomb should somehow get lost.

Clark Rumrill was stationed at Hunter Air Force Base outside Savannah at the time of the incident. He heard of it over breakfast that morning.