This Week in EUCOM History: January 16-22, 1966

January 17, 1966 -- A B-52 bomber collides with a KC-135 Stratotanker over Spain

Within EUCOM’s area of resposnibility, a B-52 bomber collided with a KC-135 Stratotanker over Spain, dropping three 70-kiloton nuclear bombs near the town of Palomares and another one into the sea.

The incident occurred on January 17, 1966, when a B-52G bomber from the US Air Force Strategic Air Command collided with a KC-135 tanker during mid-air refueling at 31,000 feet (9,450 m) over the Mediterranean Sea, off the coast of Spain. The KC-135 was completely destroyed when its fuel load ignited, killing all four crew members. The B-52G broke apart, killing three of the seven crew members aboard.

Of the four Mk28 type hydrogen bombs the B-52G carried, three were found on land near the small fishing village of Palomares in the municipality of Cuevas del Almanzora, Almería, Spain. The non-nuclear explosives in two of the weapons detonated upon impacting the ground, resulting in the contamination of a 2-square-kilometer (490-acre) (0.78 square mile) area by radioactive plutonium. The fourth, which fell into the Mediterranean Sea, was recovered intact after a 2½-month-long search.The aircraft and hydrogen bombs fell to earth near the fishing village of Palomares. This settlement is part of Cuevas del Almanzora municipality, in the Almeria province of Andalucía, Spain. Three of the weapons were located on land within 24 hours of the accident—the conventional explosives in two had exploded on impact, spreading contaminated material, while a third was found relatively intact in a riverbed. The fourth weapon could not be found despite an intensive search of the area—the only part that was recovered was the parachute tail plate, leading searchers to postulate that the weapon's parachute had deployed, and that the wind had carried it out to sea.

During early stages of recovery after the accident the 66th Tactical Reconnaissance Wing, flying RF-101C Voodoos out of RAF Upper Heyford near Oxford, England, provided aerial photographs to assist in the recovery operation and to document the crash site.

On January 22, the Air Force contacted the U.S. Navy for assistance. The Navy convened a Technical Advisory Group (TAG), chaired by Rear Adm. L. V. Swanson with Dr. John P. Craven and Capt. Willard F. Searle, Jr. to identify resources and skilled personnel that needed to be moved to Spain.

The search for the fourth bomb was carried out by means of a novel mathematical method, Bayesian search theory, led by Dr. John Craven. This method assigns probabilities to individual map grid squares, then updates these as the search progresses. Initial probability input is required for the grid squares, and these probabilities made use of the fact that a local fisherman, Francisco Simó Orts, popularly known since then as "Paco el de la bomba" ("Bomb Paco" or "Bomb Frankie"), witnessed the bomb entering the water at a certain location. Orts was contacted by the U.S. Air Force to assist in the search operation.

The United States Navy assembled 27 ships in response to Air Force request for assistance. The recovery operation was led by Supervisor of Salvage, Capt Searle. The USS Hoist, USS Petrel and USS Tringa brought 150 qualified divers who searched to 120 feet with compressed air, to 210 feet with mixed gas, and to 350 feet (110 m) with hard-hat rigs; but the bomb lay in an uncharted area of the Rio Almanzora canyon on a 70-degree slope at a depth of 2,550 feet (780 m). After a search that continued for 80 days following the crash, the bomb was located by the DSV Alvin on March 17, but was dropped and temporarily lost when the Navy attempted to bring it to the surface.

Alvin located the bomb again on April 2, this time at a depth of 2,900 feet (880 m). On April 7, an unmanned torpedo recovery vehicle, CURV, became entangled in the weapon's parachute while attempting to attach a line to it. A decision was made to raise CURV and the weapon together to a depth of 100 feet (30 m), where divers attached cables to them. The bomb was brought to the surface by USS Petrel (ASR-14). The USS Cascade (AD-16) was diverted from its Naples destination and stayed on scene until recovery and took the bomb back to America.

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