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Outrider believes that the global challenges we face together must be solved by working together.

Among the greatest threats to the future of humankind are nuclear weapons and global climate change. Outrider makes the bold claim that both threats can be overcome — and not just by policy makers but by people with the right tools and inspiration.

Accidents, Errors, and Explosions

Nuclear bombs are the most dangerous objects in the world. But in spite of precautions, nuclear bombs have been accidentally dropped from airplanes, they’ve melted in storage unit fires, and some have simply gone missing.

I

Crashes And Explosions

A B-36 in flight, viewed from below against a grey sky.
February 13, 1950 | British Columbia, Canada

A missing (dummy) bomb

Three of the engines on a U.S. B-36 bomber caught fire during a training flight. The bomber dumped a dummy nuclear bomb—it used lead to simulate plutonium—off the coast of British Columbia before crashing. The bomb was missing until 2016 when a diver stumbled across what may be the remains of the bomb while searching for sea cucumbers.

November 10, 1950 | Quebec, Canada

A bomb in the St. Lawrence River

An American B-50 accidentally dropped a bomb over the St. Lawrence River, about 300 miles northeast of Montreal. The bomb detonated on impact. Luckily, it was missing its plutonium core and only the conventional high explosives detonated. The explosion scattered nearly 100 pounds of uranium in the surrounding area.

A U.S. airforce plane is seen from above, against a grey ocean.
July 27, 1956 | Suffolk, England

A crash and a miracle

During a training exercise, a B-47 bomber crashed into a nuclear weapons storage facility at the Lakenheath Air Base in Suffolk. The bomber exploded and the crew died. Bomb disposal officers who examined the weapons in the storage facility said it was a “miracle” that one of the bombs didn’t explode. The plutonium cores to the bombs were stored in a different building nearby. If the B-47 had crashed into that building instead, the explosion could have scattered plutonium all over the surrounding area.

May 22, 1957 | Albuquerque, New Mexico

A bomb dropped on Albuquerque

A B-36 aircraft accidentally dropped a hydrogen bomb over Albuquerque while transporting it to nearby Kirtland Air Force Base. According to reports, a crewmember had accidentally pulled the bomb release lever to steady himself during turbulence. There was no nuclear detonation, but the conventional high explosives left a crater 12 feet deep and 25 feet wide on land owned by the University of New Mexico, and radioactive material was scattered within a one-mile radius of the site.

February 5, 1958 | Savannah, Georgia USA

A missing bomb in Georgia

Two aircraft, A B-47 bomber and an F-86 fighter jet, collided over Savannah, Georgia, during a training simulation. The B-47 was carrying a nuclear weapon. The bomb was jettisoned near Tybee Island. Luckily, the bomb’s conventional high explosives didn’t detonate, and the nuclear material wasn’t installed in the bomb for this training exercise. The Air Force searched for months but never found the bomb.

February 28, 1958 | England

A fire the U.S. wants to forget

A B-47 strategic bomber at the U.S. air base at Greenham Common, England, caught fire. There were rumors that the aircraft contained a nuclear weapon. In 1960, scientists detected high levels of radioactive contamination around the base. The U.S. government has yet to confirm whether or not a nuclear warhead was on the bomber at the time of the accident.

March 11, 1958 | Florence, South Carolina

A farmhouse bombed

A B-47E aircraft carrying a nuclear weapon left South Carolina for an overseas base when the bomb accidentally jettisoned. Nuclear materials were not installed in the bomb, but the conventional high explosives destroyed a house in the Mars Bluff area, injuring several people. 
 

November 4, 1958 | Abilene, Texas

A burning bomber in the sky

A B-47 bomber from Dyess Air Force Base was carrying a nuclear warhead when the plane caught fire upon take-off and crashed from 1,500 feet in the air. The bomb’s conventional high explosives detonated, creating a crater 35 feet in diameter and 6 feet deep. The nuclear material was recovered from the crash site.

June 7, 1960 | Trenton, New Jersey

A melted missile

A missile caught fire at McGuire Air Force base. It burned for 45 minutes—the missile melted, and the nuclear warhead dropped into the melted remains where it also caught fire and melted. This created a serious and long-lived contamination problem at the base that lasted well into the 1980s.

An unexploded bomb with a parachute sticks out of the ground in a field near a forest.
January 24, 1961 | Goldsboro, North Carolina

A safety switch saves the day

A B-52 bomber carrying two hydrogen bombs with yields in the multi-megaton range crashed in Goldsboro, N.C. The weapons plunged to the ground. One weapon’s parachute failed to deploy, and it broke apart upon landing. Its uranium was never found. The other weapon’s parachute deployed successfully, but when it landed it nearly detonated. Only a single safety switch prevented a nuclear blast—the other five switches failed.

March 14, 1961 | Yuba City, California

A system failure at high altitude

A B-52 carrying two nuclear weapons experienced a system failure at 10,000 feet. The nuclear weapons were separated from the plane when it crashed, but they did not explode.

Two men stare at the ruin of a bomb embedded in a hill side.
January 17, 1966 | Palomares, Spain

An accidental bombing in Spain

A B-52 bomber carrying hydrogen bombs collided with its refueling aircraft, sending three of the four bombs crashing into Palomares, Spain and dropping the last in the sea. One of the bombs landed without detonating. The conventional high explosives went off in the other two bombs, contaminating farms in the area with radioactive uranium. The fourth bomb wasn’t recovered from the sea until three months later.

January 21, 1968 | Greenland

An Arctic accident

A B-52 bomber carrying four hydrogen bombs caught fire during a flight near the Arctic Circle. The plane tried to land at Thule Air Force Base in Greenland, but crashed seven miles from the runway. The conventional high explosives in all of the bombs detonated, and radioactive contamination spread across the surrounding crash site. All four weapons were destroyed.

September 19, 1980 | Damascus, Arkansas

A deadly maintenance mistake

A Titan II missile exploded after a maintenance man dropped a wrench socket that pierced its metal skin and caused a fuel leak. The explosion blew the 740-ton silo door off and threw the warhead 600 feet from the silo, but the nuclear warhead did not detonate. Nonetheless, one man died, and twenty-one were injured.

October 3, 1986 | Atlantic Ocean

An underwater explosion

An explosion in a missile tube caused a fire on a Soviet ballistic missile submarine carrying 16 ballistic missiles, each armed with 2 nuclear warheads. Five of the crew members died. The sub was evacuated and rescued by a tow boat, but it flooded, the towing cable snapped, and it sank 18,000 feet underwater.

February 3-4, 2009 | Atlantic Ocean

An international collision

A British nuclear submarine collided with a French nuclear submarine in the Atlantic Ocean while conducting routine patrols. The subs collided at a low speed, and no one was harmed. Both vessels carried nuclear weapons.

II

False Alarms

October 5, 1960 | United States

A war with the moon

An American early warning radar reported dozens of Soviet missiles flying toward the U.S. The North American Air Defense Command (NORAD) went on high alert—before declaring it a false alarm. The first sign the report was wrong: Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev was in New York at the time. It turned out the rising moon had reflected radar waves back into a Greenland-based radar.

November 24, 1961 | Greenland

A phone switch almost starts a war

The U.S. Air Force Strategic Air Command—which was responsible for overseeing U.S. nuclear bombs and missiles—lost contact with an early warning radar system in Greenland, and could not contact NORAD in Colorado. Worried that the U.S. was under attack, officials ordered their entire alert force to prepare for takeoff. Then an American plane near Greenland was able to contact the radar operators and confirm there was no attack. It turned out that the crisis was caused by a single failed AT&T switch in Colorado.

October 28, 1962 | New Jersey

A satellite that looks like a missile

During the Cuban Missile Crisis, a New Jersey radar base reported that a missile had launched from Cuba. According to the report, the missile would hit Florida in two minutes. The missile never appeared—because it had never been launched. The radar had picked up a satellite orbiting the earth in the exact orbit and position as a hypothetical missile fired from Cuba to Florida.

Week of October 22, 1962 | Cuba

An undetected underwater nuke

During the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Soviet Union deployed four nuclear-armed submarines to Cuba. The U.S. dropped harmless low-charge explosives to force the subs to the surface. The captain of one sub, thinking they were being bombed, wanted to launch a nuclear attack. Luckily, another officer onboard was able to convince the captain to wait for instructions from Moscow—and averted nuclear war.

October 25, 1962 | Duluth, Minnesota

A bear in a time of crisis

During the Cuban Missile Crisis, a guard at a military base in Duluth, Minnesota shot at an intruder climbing the fence. The shot triggered an alarm that set off warnings at all neighboring military bases. At Volk Field base in Wisconsin, the alarm was wired incorrectly—it ordered nuclear-armed fighter planes to take off. In Duluth, the “intruder” turned out to be a bear—but the fighters were already on the runway. A staff member had to chase the planes in a truck to stop them from taking off.

November 9, 1979 | United States

An exercise attack

A training tape simulating a large-scale Soviet nuclear attack was accidentally inserted into a NORAD computer by a technician. Right away, the nation’s ICBM force was placed on its highest alert.  Nuclear bombers prepared for take-off, and the President’s National Emergency Airborne Command Post took off (though without President Carter). Six minutes later, satellites did not show any incoming attack and officials stood down.

June 3 and 6, 1980 | United States

A faulty computer chip

U.S. early warning systems showed a Soviet attack.  Bombers were ordered to the runway and had their engines running ready for take-off, and the President’s National Emergency Airborne Command Post was on the runway ready for take-off.  When the warning systems didn’t show further signs of an attack, the alert was called off. The false alarm was later revealed to be caused by a faulty computer chip.

September 25, 1983 | Soviet Union

A lucky guess

A Soviet early warning satellite reported that the United States had launched five Minuteman missiles at the U.S.S.R. But it struck Lieutenant Colonel Stanislav Yevgrafovich Petrov as odd that the U.S. would only launch five missiles. Without knowing for certain, he reported the incident to his superiors as a false alarm. After another 20 minutes, when the missiles did not appear, it became clear that he had made the right call.

January 25, 1995 | Norway

An experiment nearly gone wrong

Scientists in Norway launched a rocket to study the Aurora Borealis. The scientists had warned neighboring states about the launch, but Russia’s missile warning system identified the rocket as a submarine-launched nuclear missile. The Russian president was notified and presented with the means to authorize a retaliatory strike. Things were tense for several minutes. But Russian radars did not show any additional U.S. missile launches, and the incident was declared a false alarm.

III

Mysteries and Mistakes

March 10, 1956 | Mediterranean Sea

A bomber vanishes

A B-47 bomber left MacDill Air Force Base in Florida carrying the cores of two atomic bombs. After it failed to refuel over the Mediterranean Sea, the plane went missing. It was never found.

December 5, 1965 | Philippine Sea

A missing plane, pilot, and weapon

A U.S. A-4E aircraft carrying a nuclear weapon rolled off the deck of an aircraft carrier and disappeared under the ocean. The pilot died, and the plane and weapon were later located at a depth of 16,000 feet.  Neither the plane nor the weapon were ever recovered.

A group of sailors stand on top of a surfaced magazine in a calm sea.
May 27, 1968 | Norfolk, Virginia

A submarine disappears

A submarine with nuclear weapons on board—the USS Scorpion—and its crew vanished in the Atlantic Ocean. It sank a few hundred miles southwest of the Azores. Initially, the Soviets were suspected of foul-play, but subsequent investigation of the wreckage did not confirm those suspicions. It’s still a mystery why the Scorpion sank.

August 29-30, 2007 | North Dakota

A day and a half of missing missiles

Six U.S. nuclear-armed missiles were mistakenly loaded onto a B-52 at Minot Air Force Base, headed to Barksdale, Louisiana. The plane and the missiles sat unguarded at Minot overnight.  Once in Louisiana, the plane remained unguarded for 9 hours before anyone realized there were live nuclear weapons aboard.  It took 36 hours for anyone to notice that six nuclear-armed missiles were missing.

October 23, 2010 | Wyoming

A circuit card error

The launch control center at Warren Air Force Base lost contact with 50 nuclear ICBMs for almost an hour. While the missiles were out of contact, the remote launch centers that control them would have been unable to detect or cancel any unauthorized launch if it were to have happened. The cause: a circuit card had been installed incorrectly in a computer during a routine maintenance.

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The Human Cost

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