The last time we saw Hobo 28 in July of 2012, the year was 1956, he was a young man who had just graduated from high school and was starting work at a small town newspaper in Texas. A few days after he started, the airport closed because the small town was too small to justify its own airport. Hobo 28 was one of only a handful of people to see the plane off, and he got to go on a 10-year-old DC-3 in the morning, to take it out of the main runway and into the smaller one so it could officially close. Then, he had the honor of being the last person to see it fly, as it flew north, out of the small airport. Today, almost
A couple of weeks ago I got an email from Dieter Graeter of the Hobo 28 Foundation. He told me that he had been blogging about the loss of his beloved plane (Hobo 28) at http://www.hobo28.de. It was a plane, he said, that he had flown in all over the world. It had flown him across the Pacific Ocean from the South Pacific to the USA’s Hawaii. It had carried him across Europe, from the Mediterranean Sea to Denmark and from the Atlantic to the Pacific. The Hobo 28 had also taken him from Europe to Australia, flying him across the Pacific, flying him to China (Kobe), flying him to Korea (Yangju), flying him to the
In 1957, an airplane was used as a makeshift room of an average American family. The story is based on the true story of the last flight of American Airlines Flight 28, a plane used to temporarily house three families, in 1957. The families were given a free ride in the plane since the pilot was going to fly the plane to a military base. The story of the families is based on the lives of the families of three passengers who were passengers on the last flight of Hobo 28, a World War II-era B-25J bomber. The plane was used as a temporary housing site for the families until a new permanent housing site was found.In one of the worst incidents in Broken Arrow, a B-52 plane with four hydrogen bombs on board crashed into the ice off the coast of Greenland.
Major Alfred D’Amario thought the worst was over after he was violently ejected from the dark, smoke-filled cockpit of his Boeing B-52G Stratofortress. The bomber he was leaving crashed in flames into the ice-covered Baylot Strait near Thule Air Force Base in northwestern Greenland. D’Amario knew that safe one-point bombs would not go nuclear in an accident. On the way down, the major saw an orange fireball 13 km to the west. Suddenly, a bright white light overshadowed the orange flame of the kerosene as the impact detonated the explosives in the four hydrogen bombs in the bomb bay. A sonic rumble tore through the icy Arctic air in all directions. After a few seconds, D’Amario’s slight downward motion was interrupted. As he recounts in his book Flying in the Hangar: I looked at it for a few seconds and then all hell broke loose. My parachute and life raft took off on my right, leaving me ten or fifteen feet to their left. Then I began to commute between them. D’Amario and five members of his crew made it safely to shore. One crew member did not. Thus began one of the worst nuclear incidents in the U.S. Air Force Strategic Air Command’s Broken Arrow during the Cold War.
During the Cold War, SAC developed technologies to detect and repel a surprise Soviet attack. When the SAC deployed its first intercontinental ballistic missiles in 1959, its primary detection and strike force consisted of an array of defensive early warning radars, multiple ballistic missile early warning systems (BMEWS), and dozens of thermonuclear-armed B-52 bombers. General Thomas S. Power, commander of SAC, initiated several warning programs to reduce the reaction time of bombers for takeoffs and attacks against the Soviets. In 1958, SAC B-52 aircraft began flying in the Chrome Dome program, with crews flying along an Arctic route near the Soviet border. In the fall of 1960, the $500 million BMEWS facility at Tooele Base became operational. The data is sent via submarine cable and then wirelessly to the North American Aerospace Defense Command. Concerned that Thule’s failures might indicate that the facility had been attacked by Soviet troops or that there was a minor technical malfunction, SAC began secret Thule surveillance missions, called Hard Head, in August 1961 to provide constant visual surveillance. During the 24-hour flights, crews flew a knife-in-the-oil flight in a figure eight at 35,000 feet near the air base. The bombers were fully armed and the crew had all the mission planning documents necessary for an attack on the Soviet Union.
In 1968, SAC assigned its 380th Strategic Bomber Wing to Plattsburgh Air Force Base to conduct hardhead missions. Based near the Canadian border and attached to 528 Bomber Squadron, the squadron deployed the latest B-52Gs.
On the 21st. In January, on a bright Sunday morning in upstate New York, the 380’s renewed crew prepares to fly to Tooele, code name Junky 14, call sign Hobo 28. Captain John Haug, pilot and commanding officer, led his crew of six to the runway to begin flight preparation checks and loading. Captain Leonard Svitenko, the first officer, was in the right seat. Also on the upper cockpit deck, facing aft, were Captain Richard Marks, EWO, and Staff Sergeant Kelvin Waldrep Snapp, gunner. (Unlike the previous B-52s, the G model had the tail gunner in the cockpit). On the lower deck, the Black Hole was piloted by the navigator/radar bomber, Major Frank Hopkins, and Captain Curtis R. Kriss, who would replace the regular navigator that day. The duration of the flight to Tule and back would have been more than 24 hours, so a third pilot was required by regulation. This role was held by Major D’Amario, a security officer in the squadron’s headquarters.
On the flight line, the B-52 originally assigned to Haug had instrumentation problems and the crew switched to the fully refueled and armed B-52 58-0188. Hard Head’s missions were long and cold and required extra supplies. In addition to the personal flight bags of the A-3 crew, ground personnel quickly loaded the aircraft with supplies, sleeping gear and an electric stove. Because these long flights also tested the strength of the crew’s landing gear, D’Amario placed three polyurethane cushions under the folding seat on the lower deck, next to the aft bulkhead door leading to the engine deck, and in the wheel wells of the huge nose landing gear. When not in use, this chair can be folded against the wall. In flight, D’Amario added a fourth pillow to the pile and pulled out a metal food rack to support his legs.
crews load a magazine containing four B28 thermonuclear bombs aboard a B-52 for a Cold War flight. (US AIR FORCE)
The arctic weather put pressure on the B-52’s heating system. Mr. D’Amario noted that at the maximum throttle setting for continuous operation, the heating and air conditioning system cannot provide enough heat to keep the cabin warm. The crew had their own way of dealing with this problem. At the start of the flight, the first officer turned on the normal heating and air conditioning. As it got colder and colder in the cabin, he grabbed the control panel next to his right calf and slowly turned the heater up to maximum. When this normal system proved insufficient to maintain the heat in the cockpit, the first officer went to the center console to activate the engine ventilation system. The final boost stages of all eight engines propel 750-degree air of 250 pounds per square inch through 4-inch pipes. Some of this hot air was routed to the manifolds which were intended to cool the air, in order to heat the cabin. At the optimum temperature in the cockpit, the first officer delayed venting until he switched to a conventional system. Then the whole cycle starts over again. This superheated air also drives the electric generators, maintains cabin pressure and feeds other essential equipment.
In the B-52 flight manual, Boeing says almost nothing about the ability to heat the vent system. A crew member later reported that his pilot jacket nearly caught fire when he leaned against an air duct. Another story describes the stench of dust that burned in the ventilation shafts after the bomber was immobilized in the maintenance depot. In other cases, overheated air escaping from damaged vents destroyed the equipment on board and rendered the weapons in the bomb bay virtually unusable.
Before takeoff, Haug’s crew checks the condition of their main load, four B28FI thermonuclear loads, the only model carried by SAC bombers in 1968. The FI (Full Fuzing Internal) model allowed the radar navigator to set the weapon to fire in the air, delayed in the air, on the ground or delayed on the parachute. The H Mod 5 bombs on board were 12 feet long, 22 inches in diameter and weighed 2,300 pounds. They had an explosive force of up to 1.45 megatons, which was enough to destroy the city and its suburbs. The ground crew attached four of these guns as quadcopters to a bracket in the nose of the bomb bay of the B-52.
The launch from Hobo 28 and the five-hour flight to the Tule area were relatively quiet. Before entering the 100-mile route, the crew met a KC-135 to refuel. After refueling, D’Amario gave co-pilot Svitenko a break for a snack and a nap in his bed.
As Hobo 28 entered the flight path, Haug and D’Amario reduced the throttle for maximum endurance and settled at just over 30,000 feet. The minus 55 degrees outside air penetrated the poorly insulated cockpit, lowering the temperature inside. From the lower deck, Svitenko asked for more heat, and D’Amario began heating the cabin, quickly bringing the normal heating system to maximum. He then blew hot air out of the manifolds to purify the air. A few minutes into this cycle was enough to cause the subsequent in-flight emergency.
The heat distribution system of the B-52 consisted of a series of tubes with round holes drilled at regular intervals. One of these pipes led to a ventilation box directly under the jump seat. The superheated air pushed up the four polyurethane pads stacked on top of each other. Heated polyurethane, which firefighters consider a solid gasoline, first begins to burn, producing a characteristic white smoke and toxic flammable gases before decomposing and igniting at temperatures above 600 degrees.
The pilots on the upper deck did not understand why they were suffering from the heat while it was still cold on the lower deck. The evidence varies as to who did what, but it is clear that Svitenko had pause and could have responded to the emergency. Some report that Criss searched for and found the fire, but this interpretation may be due to the fact that he stayed in his seat first and reported to the pilot via the intercom. Instead, Hopkins focused on the devices that control nuclear weapons.
At 4:22 p.m. local time, 90 miles south of Tooele Air Force Base, Marks smelled a burning rubber odor and some crew members began rushing to find the source. Marks saw smoke coming from under the seat and initially used the A-20 fire extinguisher on the lower deck, but without success. He then pulled out the second and final fire extinguisher, which was located between the OOW and gunner position on the upper deck, and discharged it to the aft bulkhead. As the polyurethane burned up, burned and evaporated, pieces probably fell into the ventilation box under the trim, preventing the crew from reaching the fire itself. Even then, the burning polyurethane is best extinguished with water, carbon dioxide or dry chemical powders, which were not available to the crew.
As the smoke continued to rise, Svitenko pushed the metal box of food away from the seat, and flames shot up from the piled pillows. Soon both floors of the cabin were filled with thick white smoke. Criss told the pilot that they couldn’t control the fire and the lower deck went up in flames. When the temperature of the fire probably exceeded 1400 degrees, Criss made a last desperate and futile attempt to extinguish the fire with an escape bag. Marks went to the upper deck and opened the sextant hole in the ceiling just above the stairs to clear the cabin of smoke.
Haug gave everyone oxygen, turned the bomber north toward Thule, and began a rapid descent while D’Amario called for emergency services. After a few minutes at 19,000 feet the aircraft lost power and the instruments failed. D’Amario works feverishly to restore power to the generators as the fire continues to ravage the lower deck systems. In the polar darkness and thick smoke in the cockpit, only the lights of Thule AFB were a guide for us. Haug continued to reduce the altitude in preparation for a possible rescue. As they approached the base, Criss reported that the fire below had become unbearable, and Haug ordered a rescue at 4:37 p.m.
illustration by Steve Karp; photos courtesy of Timothy Karpin
With everyone in place and D’Amario in the co-pilot seat, Svitenko was probably strapping on his parachute below and trying to put out the fire with the few resources he had left. His manual escape route would have been through an open hatch in the floor, left by the ejected crew member. Later, Thule’s radar reported that the men had left the bomber at 8,000 feet at a speed of 690 mph. From the flaming black hole, first Criss and then Hopkins were ejected. Marks and Snapp followed. Haug and D’Amario gave Svitenko as much time as possible before he left the plane at their place with Weber.
Manual ejection of a B-52 is considered unsafe at speeds above 316 mph. Svitenko had to endure the flames and smoke to jump through the hatch. He didn’t make it. At one point, as he exited the aisle, he hit his head on the edge of the hatch or on the antenna for electronic countermeasures that was located under the fuselage. When rescuers found him far north of the air base, some of the nylon from his unopened parachute bag had melted and blown away. It turned out that the fire had also melted some of the soles of his boots. In most cases, it is reported that he was not conscious at the time of the fall.
No one escaped unharmed. Due to the speed at which the bomber was dropped and hit the ice, most of the crew members suffered cuts, bruises, sprained ligaments and tendons. Hopkins’ immediate injuries were the worst: Fractures to left arm and shoulder. Dane and Luftwaffe personnel found the crew on the south side of Thule, but Kriss and Svitenko were missing. Criss landed on the other side of a small mountain that blocked his view of the base. Finding no way out in the total darkness, he parachuted into his inflatable raft and waited in the damp Arctic cold. Rescue workers found him 21 hours later, badly frozen but alive, much to the disbelief of local Inuit who thought he had frozen to death. Criss then lost both his legs to frostbite.
The U.S. Air Force wasted no time in setting up Camp Hunziker to clean up the debris and radioactive components of the bombs. (US AIR FORCE)
The Hobo 28 went another 18 to 23 miles unchecked in the last two minutes. The burning bomber flew further north over the base and made a 180 degree left turn over Walstenholm Fjord, losing altitude rapidly. While flying southwest at 700 miles per hour toward Baylot Sound, turbulence caused the bomb bay door to fall off the plane. At about 1640 the left wing hit ice during a heavy roll of 50 to 60 degrees about eight miles west of the air base, dug a trench and began to collapse and detach from the fuselage, and the engines rolled southward. The nose and bow of the hull slammed hard into the bottom, with a slight 15 to 20 degree tilt on the belly, breaking a thick strip of sea ice 160 feet in diameter. When the more than 100 tons of JP-4 fuel burst and exploded before impact, the ice and hull crushed the four nuclear charges in the bomb bay. The explosives around the cores of plutonium and highly enriched uranium immediately exploded with a brilliant white light, further destroying the bomber and spewing out plutonium and uranium dust, tritium gas and secondary components. Fail-safe H-bombs have no nuclear yield.
During the next five to six hours the flames of the kerosene rose to a height of nearly half a mile and a column of smoke stretched thousands of feet above them. Most of the plane wreckage sank in 600 feet of water before the ice blocks froze at the impact site. The fire caused a blackened scar on the ice about a tenth of a mile wide and nearly half a mile long, and the debris was scattered over an area of 1 by 3 miles.
Back at the base, the major finds it difficult to determine the B-52’s payload, as D’Amario will neither confirm nor deny the presence of nuclear weapons. Finally, when asked if it was safe for rescue teams to approach the disaster site, D’Amario said: Major, I wouldn’t come within 3,000 feet of that goat.
A B-52 plane carries the 23. January personnel from Tooele Air Force Base to clean up Broken Arrow. (Keystone/Alamy)
The next day, still in the darkness of the Arctic winter, volunteer Inuit paddlers with a team of seven drove dog sleds across the sea ice. Upon their return, they reported that only small fragments of the aircraft remained on the ice at the crash site, although rescue teams later found six engines. To their horror, their radiation detectors quickly failed in the freezing cold. Nevertheless, the area of black spots extending south from the broken and frozen drop site was visibly radioactive.
SAC immediately activated Broken Arrow’s management team and appointed Major General Richard O. Hunziker to Project Crested Ice. The next day the construction of the Hunziker on Ice camp started. So as not to break the ice, the cleanup crews spread out their makeshift buildings, storage facilities and heavy earthmoving equipment. Stormy weather on the 24th and 28th blew plutonium and uranium dust at least four miles northwest to Saunders Island. The Air Force, the Atomic Energy Commission and two national laboratories helped clean up the disaster site for several days.
Inuit teams on dog sleds transported personnel to the disaster site. (Bettman/Getty Images)
Each day between storms, one to three dozen U.S. personnel and up to a dozen Inuit worked on the ice, and another 25 to 250 base personnel transported, inspected, identified, and containerized aircraft parts and contaminated the snow and ice. Project Crested Ice ultimately involved about 565 Americans and 85 Danes who examined about 30 square miles of sea ice for debris and radioactivity. See you on the 10th. By April, Danish and Air Force crews had finished clearing the sea ice. AFS Tooele personnel then spread charred sand over 6.2 acres of lightly contaminated sea ice to accelerate spring melting and trap remaining fuel and radionuclides so they would sink and not wash ashore.
Denmark has asked the US government to remove all radioactive debris and contaminated snow and ice from Greenland. An incredible collection of trash has been created at Tule AFB, including 71 25,000-gallon tanks filled with cleanup waste and contaminated snow and ice. Nearby were 14 large engine containers, 192 drums of aircraft waste, and 268 1,800-gallon tanks filled with contaminated liquid. The largest piece of aircraft recovered was only the size of a desk, although larger forgings, such as legs of landing gears, remained at the bottom of Bylot Strait. The Air Force sent recovered fragments of hydrogen bombs to three locations in the United States. The spring thaw allowed U.S. Navy freighters to transport the melted ice and snow to the Savannah River facility in South Carolina.
In August, the research submarine STAR III arrived in Bylot Strait, ostensibly to document the debris that had sunk through the sea ice, but more importantly to find and if possible retrieve the still missing fourth secondary vehicle containing uranium. Although three Air Force divers found several small fragments during their 11 dives that were part of one or more H-bombs, as well as thousands of aircraft fragments, they did not find the missing secondary. They concluded that it had been deposited at a depth of 800 feet in an unexplored part of the Strait.
Of the four H-bombs, the clearance crews recovered most of the uranium from the three secondary bombs, but none from the fourth bomb. The crew could not salvage the plutonium, uranium and tritium that had burned and dispersed in the initial fire, nor a significant amount of radioactive material that had sunk or frozen in the ice at the crash site. According to a latest estimate, about 35% of the total plutonium (4.8 out of 13 pounds) and at least a third of the total uranium (about 19 out of 53 pounds) were lost, mainly from the weapon in the left part of the bomb bay, which probably exploded first.
As a result of this event at Broken Arrow, SAC ceased production of the Chrome Dome and instead kept its bombers on alert, with cold engines on the launch pad. The Air Force continued to send B-52 aircraft to Thule for missions with hard heads, but with empty bomb bays. D’Amario joined these crews on at least one mission, but presumably without extra seat cushions. Boeing warned crews about the intense heat from the ventilation system. National laboratories have also begun developing nuclear weapons with insensitive explosives to prevent such a disaster from happening again. To date, classified and largely unrecognizable fragments of hydrogen bombs lie buried in soft sediments at the bottom of the Bylot Strait.
Timothy Karpin and James Maroncelli are the authors of The Traveler’s Guide to Nuclear Weapons: A Journey Through America’s Cold War Battlefields, available at atomictraveler.com. Read more: The Flight in the Hangar, by Alfred J. H. Hoffman. D’Amario; and Thule: Nuclear accident at Thule, Greenland, by John Taschner and James Oskins.
This article appeared in the November 2017 issue of Aviation History magazine. Sign up today!
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