Thursday, February 10, 2011


United States Air Force Convair B-36 bomber
that crashed into the Canadian wilderness.

With the approaching 66th. anniversary of the WWII detonation of two atomic bombs on Japan, it is timely to recall that Canada also experienced the dropping of a similar US weapon, though inadvertently. This now largely-forgotten incident happened on February 13, 1950, five years after the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings. In 1950, a fearful world was caught in the Cold War, a tense military stand-off between the Soviet Union and the United States, then the world’s most powerful rivals.

Late in the afternoon of that day, a Convair B-36 “Peacemaker” heavy bomber aircraft of the United States Strategic Air Command took off from Eileson Air Force Base, Anchorage, Alaska, during a bitterly cold blizzard. Its high-altitude flight-path would pass over British Columbia en route to California on a simulated combat mission to test San Francisco’s defences against possible future Soviet attack. The plane’s mission was typical of that era’s airborne practice exercises by U.S. and Canadian air forces, which closely co-operated to defend North America against possible incursions by Soviet bombers.

The six-engined giant B-36 had a wingspan of 70 metres (230 feet), making it the largest bomber ever built by the U.S. It cost $6 million and carried 17 crewmen. Also aboard was an inert atomic bomb much like the 19-kiloton weapon - dubbed “Fatman” – that had been dropped on Nagasaki in the Second World War. Though the practice bomb aboard the B-36 was a fully-functioning weapon, it contained lead for the core instead of plutonium, and so was not capable of creating a devastating thermonuclear blast. Still, it was armed lethally enough, packing several thousand pounds of conventional TNT high explosive for emergency use in vaporizing the shell of IA-grade uranium (which itself did not present any radiation danger.)

"Fatman" atomic bomb similar to the
weapon detonated over Canada in 1950.

 The B-36's routine training mission turned into a nightmare for the crew and even threatened British Columbians as they slept innocently below its droning passage through the black winter night.

Six hours into the flight, the huge plane encountered an increasingly violent winter storm that rapidly built up heavy icing on the wings and pusher-propeller engines. The aircraft’s pilot, Capt. H.L. Barry, said afterwards, “We were at about forty-thousand feet when iced-up carburetors caused three engines to burst into flames, the aircraft became very difficult to control, and we started to lose altitude"

Down to 14.000 feet, he radioed an urgent distress call for assistance at 11:25 p.m. "Engines on fire. Contemplate ditching on Queen Charlotte Sound. Keep lookout for flares or wreckage.” Lt. Paul Gerhart was the plane’s radar officer; if required, he was also responsible for dropping and detonating the bomb so as to avoid it falling into the hands of possible enemies. There was always anxiety in Washington that Soviet intelligence agents might try to retrieve a U.S. atomic weapon if one ever went down intact, to examine its secrets. With the plane obviously about to go down, there was urgent need to neutralize its deadly cargo.

“It was about midnight when I salvoed the bomb,” Gerhart recalled, “It detonated about 4,000 feet above the Pacific. There was a tremendous flash in the sky somewhere near Hectate Strait, apparently not witnessed by anyone below.”

The massive B-36 was falling 300 feet per minute when Capt. Barry set the automatic pilot to fly southwest, and ordered his crew to bail out immediately. Radio Sgt. Vitale Trippoldi’s last act was to tie down his Morse key so it would keep transmitting a steady location-fix for rescuers. Then the 17 crewmen parachuted out in rapid succession, and as they floated down caught sight of their blazing bomber still flying in a slanting course.

The first response to the distress call came from the Royal Canadian Air Force’s 123 Search & Rescue Squadron based at Sea Island, Vancouver, BC. There was quick follow-up by the destroyer HMCS Cayuga, then ships from Victoria, and various vessels and planes from RCAF Base Pat Bay. All of them sped northward along Vancouver Island.

Soon, they were joined by an armada of two dozen American ships and 70 aircraft that converged in a large-scale effort to locate the missing aircrew. Because their exact whereabouts were unknown, the search covered an area about 50 miles wide and 400 miles long, stretching along the coast of British Columbia.

Weather had turned nasty, with low temperatures, high waves, driving rain, and thick fog that made poor visibility. As there was scant chance of the downed flyers surviving long in the freezing-cold Pacific, search efforts concentrated first on the ocean waters.

The crash caused great interest in the city of Victoria, where people followed the details and anxiously waited for any news of survivors. But hope faded after 48 hours, when no trace of the airmen could be found at sea despite the massive search efforts. Teams of U.S. and Canadian service personnel, together with local On land, First Nations people, turned to scouring the wooded ravines of islands in Queen Charlotte Sound.

Then glad news came with a radio call from Vince King, captain of the B.C. fishing-boat Port Perry, who said he was bringing in nine survivors of the B-36 crew. Soon afterwards, HMCS Cayuga announced the rescue of another two USAF men from Price Island. Eventually, 12 of the missing airmen were rescued from various locations on rugged Princess Royal Island.

Sad to say, the first five men to evacuate the aircraft were never seen again after they parachuted into the darkness. Apparently, they drowned in the cold Pacific waters. Three others who fell into the sea were able to inflate their small life-rafts and survive long enough to be found by searchers. Most of the rest had been fortunate enough to fall on land, although they were widely separated from each other, lost in the densely-wooded rough terrain of the sparsely inhabited islands.

A few airmen were critically injured when they hit the ground, particularly Sgt. Trippoldi. His parachute snagged in a tree, injuring his shoulder and leaving him hanging upside-down by an ankle for 12 hours before being found by two of his crew-mates. Other airmen suffered broken bones or frostbite, but all were safely hospitalized or returned to their thankful families within hours.

American officials were fulsome in their gratitude to the Canadian rescuers, but they made it clear that the accident was classified as top secret. For months after, USAF insisted on carrying out its own search for the missing aircraft – and any of its atomic weaponry that might be recovered. However, no trace of the wreck could be found, and location efforts were finally abandoned.

The mystery of the missing bomber was finally solved three years later. In June, 1953, people searching for a downed Canadian civilian aircraft instead came across the B-36’s remains strewn along a high ridge on Kaloget Mountain beside Kispiok Valley, 360 metres from where its crew bailed out. The investigators retrieved a few bits of radar equipment, the used explosives to demolish the airframe fragments.

Today, the resting-place of the first plane to lose an American atomic bomb is designated a “heritage wreck-site” protected forever by the B.C. Archeology Branch.

1 comment:

Ravi said...

The B-36 Peacemaker is such an awesome aircraft. Too bad it never dropped a single bomb in combat.