It was nearly 4 pm on February 4, 1958, when a B-47 bomber, piloted by Major Howard Richardson and 2 other crew members, lifted off from Homestead Air Force Base near Miami, Florida. There mission that day was to practice to fly tandem with another B-47 and mimic the requirements of a wartime attack on targets in the Soviet Union. These missions, striving for realism, would include an aerial refueling, a round trip of about 5,000 miles at speeds up to 600 mph and an electronic “bomb drop” scored by a ground station in Europe or North America. Often along the way the bombers, to simulate reality, would be “attacked” by Air Force fighter aircraft. This day, however, to add another touch of realism to the mix, the B-47 flown by Maj. Richardson also contained within its bomb bay an 11-foot-7-inch-long, 7,600-pound Mk 15 Mod 0 thermonuclear weapon, which wasn’t standard practice for these types of missions.
While cruising westerly over the Gulf of Mexico Richardson’s B-47 refueled as was standard practice on these missions. Upon reaching New Orleans, Richardson turned northerly and proceeded to the Canadian border in preparation for a southerly turn to begin his “bomb run” on radar scoring facility at Radford, Virginia. Richardson’s B-47 “bombed” the target electronically and headed for home. The crew had covered 4000 miles in 8 hours and were ready to rest and relax. Richardson was told by a message from headquarters that on the return trip he would not be “attacked” by enemy fighters, which added a little bit of comfort to the remaining flight.
But no one seemed to have told Charleston Air Force Base in South Carolina. Lt. Clarence Stewart and two other pilots and three crew chiefs are readying their F-86 fighters to “attack” Richardson’s returning B-47. They had been given permission to attack Richardson’s plane any time before it landed in Florida.
At 12:09 a.m. on February 5, Air Defense Control radar picked up one of the B-47’s roughly 180 miles north of Charleston Air Force Base, but it did not pick up Richardson’s B-47. Ground control radar directed the 3 F-86’s to a point several thousand feet over and 15 miles away from Richardson’s B-47. Stewart, and his radar, locked onto the known B-47 and he began descending rapidly to “attack” the bomber, never knowing that he was on a collision course with Richardson’s B-47. Stewart didn’t know he was plunging towards Richardson’s B-47, as he was intently looking at his radar for fear of losing the other B-47 in the darkness, but he looked up for a second and saw the moon reflecting off the top of Richardson’s B-47. He attempted to roll the F-86 right but was unable to avoid a collision.
Stewart was able to eject from the crippled F-86, but, amazingly, the B-47 was only damaged. Upon inspection, the B-47’s crew noticed that the far right engine was bent upwards at a 30-degree angle and the right external fuel tank had been sheared off. Because of the bent engine the plane is rolling wildly. In an effort to control the craft Richardson cuts the power to that engine and then cuts the speed of the plane in an attempt to make an emergency landing at Hunter Air Force Base in Georgia. The tower at Hunter advises Richardson that because of maintenance on the runway, if the plane lands short it could cause the plane to crash, hurtling the Mk 15 bomb through the cockpit and down the runway at 200+ mph. Richardson radios Strategic Air Command and informs them that he is going to ditch the bomb in the Atlantic near Tybee Island, off the coast of Georgia. He does this and is able to eventually land the damaged plane.
On February 6, 1958, the Air Force 2700th Explosive Ordnance Disposal Squadron and 100 Navy personnel began the arduous search to recover the lost Mk 15 bomb. 10 days later an announcement was made that the search had turned up nothing, with the Air Force and Navy believing that the bomb was buried below the water in upwards of 5-15 feet of mud. To this day it has never been recovered. 1Most, if not all, of the information for this post came from an amazing Washington Post article, “Lost: One H-Bomb. Call Owner“.