Blame the Reds: The B-52 crash and BROKEN ARROW near Yuba City, 1961


I have just re-watched “Nuclear Rescue 911” which is a superb documentary film dealing with the history of US Air Force nuclear weapons accidents. Using the publicly available US Department of Defense BROKEN ARROW fact sheet list as a basis for the incidents, filmmaker Peter Kuran tracked down and interviewed a number of personnel involved in the accidents and recovery operations. Impressive work.

B-52 crash and BROKEN ARROW near Yuba City, 1961

One of the BROKEN ARROW incidents involved the 1961 crash of a B-52 near Yuba City, California:

“A B-52 experienced failure of the crew compartment pressurization system, forcing descent to 10,000 feet altitude. Increased fuel consumption caused fuel exhaustion before rendezvous with a tanker aircraft. The crew bailed out at 10,000 feet except for the aircraft commander, who stayed with the aircraft to 4,000 feet and steered the plane away from a populated area. The two nuclear weapons on board were torn from the aircraft on ground impact. The high explosive did not detonate. Safety devices worked as designed to prevent nuclear contamination.”

We now have some new information available on the Yuba City crash. Retired USAF Lt Col Earl McGill, a Cold War B-47 and B-52 pilot, has recently published “Jet Age Man: SAC B-47 and B-52 Operations in the Early Cold War.” An excellent memoir on SAC operations, “Jet Age Man” reveals that there was much more to the Yuba City crash than has been available in the public domain. Decrying Wikipedia’s propensity to proliferate decades old disinformation, McGill explains that “Whatever the cause, SAC crews were briefed on every B-52 accident….we were summoned to the alert shack briefing room where we were told that a B-52 returning from a 24-hour CHROME DOME mission ran out of fuel and dumped four Mk-28’s on Northern California.”

As for the weapons being shredded by the impact, welllll there is some discrepency on that:

“Most of the safety features failed because of the bizarre way the bombs were released. Parachute deployment was prevented by safety pin device that was controlled by a switch on the radar bombardier’s panel. When the aircraft broke up in the wing box section, the bomb rack was wrenched away from the bombs, extracting the pins, which then allowed the parachutes to deploy.”

This is significant because nucs have environment sensing mechanisms that are conditionally activated for arming and detonation. These systems were essentially bypassed by the crash mechanism:

“This activated the altitude switches, which in turn, further compromised safety….One bomb was reported to have hung up in a tree dangling by its chutes. Although none of the weapons detonated at least one ground fire was reported. The safety devices barely worked as designed. Apparently three weapons chutes did not fully deploy, which prevented detonation. The one that hung up, we were briefed, had ‘rung in’, a term we used to indicate ‘armed’….”

Read Also : Retaliatory Measures: The 1960 RB-47 Shoot-Down

So what happened?

The B-52 did run out of fuel, even after being contacted by ground operations staff, who scrambled a KC-135 tanker even though the crew did not think it was neccessary:

“CHROME DOME alert crews were issued dextroamethamphetamine, called ‘go pills’, better known as ‘speed’: “The accident board concluded that the crash resulted from a series of unbelievable errors in judgment they eventually pinned on a little red pill we used to stay awake.”

McGill recalled:

“As we left the briefing room to go to our airplane to fly a 24-hour CHROME DOME mission, we would pause by the exit and dip into the large jar, grab a handful, and dump them into the pocket of our flight suit.”


SAC’s Airborne Alert Force, with each aircraft carrying at least four megaton-yield nuclear weapons, were flown by crews who were using meth.

This practice stopped in SAC after the 1961 crash.

Bizarre coincidence: The B-52 crashed near Moroni Road, west of Yuba City. Moroni is a Mormon angel associated with the Second Coming


I found a declassified document (see Yuba1 ) relating to the Yuba City crash. It refers to two weapons, designation redacted, but refers continuously to the search and for and recovery of the “Savannah River items,” which was veiled speech for part of the thermonuclear detonation package which held Tritium (The Savannah River plant produced both Plutonium and Tritium). One of the “items” was reported to be “semi-armed.” Not sure if that is like half-pregnant or not….

See Also : Was This Convair’s Cold War Version of Nick Cook’s Nazi Foo Fighter?


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