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Tue Jan 21, 2020, 07:05 AM

52 Years Ago Today; a Broken Arrow in Greenland


A B-52G, similar to the one that crashed at Thule Air Base

On 21 January 1968, an aircraft accident (sometimes known as the Thule affair or Thule accident (/ˈtuːli/); Danish: Thuleulykken) involving a United States Air Force (USAF) B-52 bomber occurred near Thule Air Base in the Danish territory of Greenland. The aircraft was carrying four B28FI thermonuclear bombs on a Cold War "Chrome Dome" alert mission over Baffin Bay when a cabin fire forced the crew to abandon the aircraft before they could carry out an emergency landing at Thule Air Base. Six crew members ejected safely, but one who did not have an ejection seat was killed while trying to bail out. The bomber crashed onto sea ice in North Star Bay, Greenland, causing the conventional explosives aboard to detonate and the nuclear payload to rupture and disperse, which resulted in radioactive contamination.

The United States and Denmark launched an intensive clean-up and recovery operation, but the secondary stage of one of the nuclear weapons could not be accounted for after the operation was completed. USAF Strategic Air Command "Chrome Dome" operations were discontinued immediately after the accident, which highlighted the safety and political risks of the missions. Safety procedures were reviewed and more stable explosives were developed for use in nuclear weapons.

In 1995, a political scandal arose in Denmark after a report revealed the government had given tacit permission for nuclear weapons to be located in Greenland, in contravention of Denmark's 1957 nuclear-free zone policy. Workers involved in the clean-up program campaigned for compensation for radiation-related illnesses they experienced in the years after the accident.


Broken Arrow
On 21 January 1968, a B-52G Stratofortress, serial number 58-0188, with the callsign "HOBO 28" from the 380th Strategic Bomb Wing at Plattsburgh Air Force Base, New York was assigned the "Hard Head" mission over Thule and nearby Baffin Bay. The bomber crew consisted of five regular crew members, including Captain John Haug, the aircraft commander. Also aboard were a substitute navigator (Captain Curtis R. Criss) and a mandatory third pilot (Major Alfred D'Mario).

Before take-off, D'Mario placed three cloth-covered foam cushions on top of a heating vent under the instructor navigator's seat in the aft section of the lower deck. Shortly after take-off, another cushion was placed under the seat. The flight was uneventful until the scheduled mid-air refueling from a KC-135 Stratotanker, which had to be conducted manually because of an error with the B-52G's autopilot. About one hour after refueling, while the aircraft was circling above its designated area, Captain Haug directed co-pilot Svitenko to take his rest period. His seat was taken by the spare pilot, D'Mario. The crew was uncomfortable because of the cold, although the heater's rheostat was turned up, so D'Mario opened an engine bleed valve to draw additional hot air into the heater from the engine manifold. Because of a heater malfunction, the air barely cooled as it traveled from the engine manifold to the cabin's heating ducts. During the next half-hour, the cabin's temperature became uncomfortably hot, and the stowed cushions ignited. After one crew member reported smelling burning rubber, they looked for a fire. The navigator searched the lower compartment twice before discovering the fire behind a metal box. He attempted to fight it with two fire extinguishers, but could not put it out.

Thule Air Base in the foreground with North Star Bay, which was covered in sea ice at the time of the accident, in the background

At 15:22 EST, about six hours into the flight and 90 miles (140 km) south of Thule Air Base, Haug declared an emergency. He told Thule air traffic control that he had a fire on board and requested permission to perform an emergency landing at the air base. Within five minutes, the aircraft's fire extinguishers were depleted, electrical power was lost and smoke filled the cockpit to the point that the pilots could not read their instruments. As the situation worsened, the captain realized he would not be able to land the aircraft and told the crew to prepare to abandon it. They awaited word from D'Mario that they were over land, and when he confirmed that the aircraft was directly over the lights of Thule Air Base, the four crewmen ejected, followed shortly thereafter by Haug and D'Mario. The co-pilot, Leonard Svitenko, who had given up his ejection seat when the spare pilot took over from him, sustained fatal head injuries when he attempted to bail out through one of the lower hatches.

The pilotless aircraft initially continued north, then turned left through 180° and crashed onto sea ice in North Star Bay at a relatively shallow angle of 20 degrees—about 7.5 miles (12.1 km) west of Thule Air Base—at 15:39 EST. The conventional high explosive (HE) components of four 1.1 megaton[20] B28FI thermonuclear bombs detonated on impact, spreading radioactive material over a large area in a manner similar to a dirty bomb. "Weak links" in the weapon design ensured that a nuclear explosion was not triggered. The extreme heat generated by the burning of 225,000 pounds (102 t) of jet fuel during the five to six hours after the crash melted the ice sheet, causing wreckage and munitions to sink to the ocean floor.

The gunner (center), SSgt Calvin Snapp, is rescued after ejecting onto the ice

Inuit around the base worked with the U.S. Air Force to get to the B-52 crash. The sleds were the only way to get to the crash site.

Haug and D'Mario parachuted onto the grounds of the air base and made contact with the base commander within ten minutes of each other. They informed him that at least six crew ejected successfully and the aircraft was carrying four nuclear weapons. Off-duty staff were mustered to conduct search and rescue operations for the remaining crew members. Owing to the extreme weather conditions, Arctic darkness, and unnavigable ice, the base relied largely on the Thule representative of the Royal Greenland Trade Department, Ministry of Greenland, Jens Zinglersen, to raise and mount the search using native dog sled teams. Three of the survivors landed within 1.5 miles (2.4 km) of the base and were rescued within two hours. For his initial actions and later services, Zinglersen received the Air Force Exceptional Civilian Service Medal on 26 February 1968 at the hands of the U.S. Ambassador, K. E. White. Captain Criss, who was first to eject, landed 6 miles (9.7 km) from the base—he remained lost on an ice floe for 21 hours and suffered hypothermia in the −23 °F (−31 °C) temperatures, but he survived by wrapping himself in his parachute.

An aerial survey of the crash site immediately afterwards showed only six engines, a tire and small items of debris on the blackened surface of the ice. The accident was designated a Broken Arrow, or an accident involving a nuclear weapon but which does not present a risk of war.

Project Crested Ice

Aerial photograph of blackened ice at the crash scene, with the point of impact at the top

The resulting explosion and fire destroyed many of the components that had scattered widely in a 1-mile (1.6 km) by 3-mile (4.8 km) area. Parts of the bomb bay were found 2 miles (3.2 km) north of the impact area, indicating the aircraft started to break up before impact. The ice was disrupted at the point of impact, temporarily exposing an area of seawater approximately 160 feet (50 m) in diameter; ice floes in the area were scattered, upturned and displaced. South of the impact area, a 400-foot (120 m) by 2,200-foot (670 m) blackened patch was visible where fuel from the aircraft had burned—this area was highly contaminated with JP-4 aviation fuel and radioactive elements that included plutonium, uranium, americium and tritium. Plutonium levels as high as 380 mg/m2 were registered in the area.

American and Danish officials immediately launched "Project Crested Ice" (informally known as "Dr. Freezelove" ), a clean-up operation to remove the debris and contain environmental damage.[36] Despite the cold, dark Arctic winter, there was considerable pressure to complete the clean-up operation before the sea ice melted in the spring and deposited further contaminants into the sea.

Weather conditions at the site were extreme; the average temperature was −40 °F (−40 °C), at times dropping to −76 °F (−60 °C). These temperatures were accompanied by winds of up to 89 miles per hour (40 m/s). Equipment suffered high failure rates and batteries worked for shorter periods in the cold; operators modified their scientific instruments to allow the battery packs to be carried under their coats to extend the batteries' lifespan. The operation was conducted in arctic darkness until 14 February, when sunlight gradually began appearing.

A base camp (named "Camp Hunziker" after Richard Overton Hunziker, the USAF general in charge of the operation) was created at the crash site; it included a heliport, igloos, generators and communications facilities. A "zero line" delineating the 1-mile (1.6 km) by 3-mile (4.8 km) area in which alpha particle contamination could be measured was established by 25 January, four days after the crash. The line was subsequently used to control decontamination of personnel and vehicles. An ice road was constructed to Thule from the site. This was followed by a second, more direct road so that the ice on the first road was not fatigued by overuse. The camp later included a large prefabricated building, two ski-mounted buildings, several huts, a decontamination trailer and a latrine. These facilities allowed for 24-hour operations at the crash site.

Contaminated ice being loaded into steel tanks at Thule during Project Crested Ice

The USAF worked with Danish nuclear scientists to consider the clean-up options. The spilled fuel in the blackened area was heavily contaminated, raising concerns that when the ice melted in the summer, the radioactive fuel would float on the sea and subsequently contaminate the shore. The Danes thus insisted on the removal of the blackened area to avoid this possibility. The Danes also requested that the nuclear material not be left in Greenland after the cleanup operation was complete, therefore requiring General Hunziker to remove the contaminated ice and wreckage to the United States for disposal. USAF personnel used graders to collect the contaminated snow and ice, which was loaded into wooden boxes at the crash site. The boxes were moved to a holding area near Thule Air Base known as the "Tank Farm". There, contaminated material was loaded into steel tanks prior to being loaded onto ships. Debris from the weapons was sent to the Pantex plant in Texas for evaluation, and the tanks were shipped to Savannah River in South Carolina. According to General Hunziker, 93 percent of the contaminated material was removed from the accident site.

In 1987–88 and again in 2000, reports surfaced in the Danish press that one of the bombs had not been recovered. SAC stated at the time of the accident that all four bombs were destroyed. In 2008, the BBC published an article that was based on its examination of partly declassified documents obtained some years earlier, via the United States Freedom of Information Act. The documents appeared to confirm that within weeks of the accident, investigators realized only three of the weapons could be accounted for. One of the declassified documents—dated to January 1968—details a blackened section of ice which had refrozen with shroud lines from a weapon parachute: "Speculate something melted through the ice such as burning primary or secondary." A July 1968 report states, "An analysis by the AEC of the recovered secondary components indicates recovery of 85 percent of the uranium and 94 percent, by weight, of three secondaries. No parts of the fourth secondary have been identified."

The BBC tracked down several officials involved in the accident's aftermath. One was William H. Chambers, a former nuclear weapons designer at the Los Alamos National Laboratory. Chambers headed a team dealing with nuclear accidents, including the Thule crash. He explained the logic behind the decision to abandon the search: "There was disappointment in what you might call a failure to return all of the components ... it would be very difficult for anyone else to recover classified pieces if we couldn't find them."

Set of four B28FI thermonuclear bombs of the same type as those in the accident at Thule

In August 1968, the United States military sent a Star III mini-submarine to the base to look for weapon debris, especially the uranium-235 fissile core of a secondary. A much bigger operation at Palomares off the coast of Spain two years earlier led to the recovery of a lost nuclear weapon from the Mediterranean Sea; the B28FI bomb was lost for 80 days after a mid-air collision between a B-52 on a "Chrome Dome" mission and its KC-135 Stratotanker refueling aircraft. Christensen asserts that the purpose of the underwater search at Thule was obvious to the Danish authorities, contrary to other reports that suggested its true purpose had been hidden from them. At lower levels, however, the dives were surrounded by some confidentiality. One document from July 1968 reads, "Fact that this operation includes search for object or missing weapon part is to be treated as Confidential NOFORN", meaning it was not to be disclosed to non-US nationals. It continues, "For discussion with Danes, this operation should be referred to as a survey, repeat survey of bottom under impact point." Further indications of the search are apparent in a September 1968 interim report by the United States Atomic Energy Commission, which stated, "It was further speculated that the missing <redacted>, in view of its ballistic characteristics, may have come to rest beyond the observed concentration of heavy debris." This discussion was a reference to the unsuccessful search for the uranium cylinder of one of the secondaries.

The underwater search was beset by technical problems and eventually abandoned. Diagrams and notes included in the declassified documents make clear it was not possible to search the entire area where crash debris had spread. Four bomb reservoirs, one nearly intact secondary, and parts equaling two secondaries were recovered on the sea ice; parts equaling one secondary were not accounted for. The search also revealed a weapon cable fairing, polar cap, and a one-foot by three-foot section of a warhead's ballistic case.

The United States Air Force monitored airborne contamination through nasal swabs of onsite personnel. Of the 9,837 nasal swabs taken, 335 samples had detectable levels of alpha particle activity, although none were above acceptable levels. Urinalysis was also performed but none of the 756 samples displayed any detectable level of plutonium.

By the time the operation concluded, 700 specialized personnel from both countries and more than 70 United States government agencies had worked for nine months to clean up the site, often without adequate protective clothing or decontamination measures. In total, more than 550,000 US gallons (2,100 m3) of contaminated liquid—along with thirty tanks of miscellaneous material, some of it contaminated—were collected at the Tank Farm. Project Crested Ice ended on 13 September 1968 when the last tank was loaded onto a ship bound for the United States. The operation is estimated to have cost $9.4 million ($69.1 million as of 2020).


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