Published on March 10, 2013
On March 10, 1956 — today in aviation history — the Department of Defense authorized the following information release:
March 10, 1956/B-47/ Mediterranean Sea
The aircraft was one of a flight of four scheduled for non-stop deployment from MacDill AFB to an overseas air base. Take-off from MacDill and first refueling were normal. The second refueling point was over the Mediterranean Sea. In preparation for this, the flight penetrated solid cloud formation to descend to the refueling level of 14,000 feet. Base of the clouds was 14,500 feet and visibility was poor. The aircraft, carrying two nuclear capsules in carrying cases never made contact with the tanker. An extensive search failed to locate any traces of the missing aircraft or crew.
The terms were terse, concise and did little to conceal the start reality that two caches of nuclear grade, weaponized bomb material, outside of their bomb casings, had disappeared. It constituted a dangerous turn of events, referred to in Strategic Air Command parlance as a “Broken Arrow”. What followed in the days and weeks after the loss, however, was even more frightening.
In fact, it may have consequences that reach nearly 50 years through history to today.
In 1956, the Strategic Air Command’s 305th and 306th Bombardment Wings were based at MacDill AFB, Tampa, Florida. Both were equipped with nuclear-capable B-47 Stratojet medium bombers. Missions were varied but were designed to ensure that the USAF provided continuous deterrence and pressure on the Soviet Union in the early years of the Cold War. To accomplish these missions, the SAC crews regularly deployed around the world, often basing from allies of the West that ringed the borders of the USSR.
On March 10, 1956, four B-47 Stratojets of the 369th Bomb Squadron took off from MacDill AFB en route to Ben Guerir AB, located just north of Marrakesh, Morocco. For the previous three years, B-47s had flown similar missions, crossing the Atlantic at high speeds. In one case, a B-47 set a record crossing that averaged 575 mph over a distance of 3,120 miles, completing the mission in just 5 hours and 22 minutes after aerial refueling several times. The B-47 Stratojet gave SAC the ability to penetrate Soviet airspace at high speed and reach targets anywhere on the planet.
Crossing the Atlantic, the four B-47s rendezvous’ed with a KC-97 Stratotanker flying from a temporary duty station in the Azores. This was their first aerial refueling. They took on 35,000 lbs of fuel each before continuing on their way toward Morocco. A few hours later, they arrived over the Mediterranean and descended for their next refueling. A solid deck of clouds stretched below, though weather reports noted that the ceiling was 14,500 feet. The tanker was waiting for the aircraft at 14,000 feet so they could undertake the refueling in clear weather. What happened next defies explanation — just three of the four B-47s emerged from the clouds. The fourth was simply missing.
The Search and an Evaluation
The missing plane was a Boeing B-47E-95-BW Stratojet carrying serial number 52-534. The three man flight crew consisted of Captain Robert H. Hodgin (age 31, Aircraft Commander), Captain Gordon M. Insley (age 32, Observer), and 2nd Lt. Ronald L. Kurtz (age 22, Copilot). In the belly of the aircraft were two capsules carrying bomb-ready nuclear weapons material — these were an essential part of the deployment to Ben Guerir AB, since there were no permanently stored nuclear weapons kept there. Since the nuclear weapons materiel was in carrying capsules, a nuclear detonation was impossible, but nonetheless, any such loss constituted a serious matter.
Moreover, the disappearance of the aircraft also meant that the three man flight crew was also missing and quite possibly in need of assistance. Had they bailed out? Had the plane crashed into the water or exploded in midair? No radio communication or declaration of an emergency had been transmitted. Why? As these questions and more circulated, a large scale search and rescue operation began. USAF search teams were dispatched. British Naval assets undertaking military exercises were diverted to the search as well. Finally, French and Moroccan ground troops in the desert undertook a focused search for any sign of the plane on land.
The most promising reports were from eyewitnesses who stated that the bomber was seen to explode in midair over the desert to the southeast of Port Say, a small village along the Algerian coast near the Moroccan border. That location corresponded with the rough position of where the planes were to have done their aerial refueling. Searchers, however, could not locate any wreckage. In the end, nothing was found — not then, nor since — and the search was abandoned, leaving two capsules of nuclear weapons grade material unaccounted for and at risk.
While the story of the B-47 “Broken Arrow” (what the USAF calls the loss of a nuclear weapon or weapons materiel) has been mostly forgotten, it implies a dangerous reality. The region where the plane may have crashed is sparsely populated and, in recent months, has become the home of transnational terrorist groups, commonly lumped together under the informal title of AQIM (Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb). Were one of these groups to “get lucky” and find the nuclear materiel, likely still safely secured within their SAC capsules and radiation shielded for easy transportation, they would have the makings of a “dirty bomb” at the very least. Even fifty years later, the nuclear grade materiel one would find within would not have decayed to any significant degree.
Where once the loss of the plane and crew were a matter of serious interest within SAC, today, this piece of history brings a dark and dangerous new dimension to the conflicts in Mali and around the region between insurgents and the established governments of the region, with the backing of the West. A Broken Arrow — what should be just another footnote from the pages of the Cold War — remains a matter of concern, even to this day.
Today’s Aviation Trivia Question
The loss of the B-47E 52-534 is not the only “Broken Arrow” event in the course of SAC’s history of the Cold War. Did the Soviets ever suffer from the loss of a nuclear weapon as well, a sort of “Red Star Broken Arrow” event? If so, where and how?