Monday January 17th 1966 began sunny in the little fishing village of Palomares in south-east Spain. Long before the arrival of mass tourism, in a backward country still ruled by Franco, locals scratched a living growing tomatoes in the dust of Europe’s only desert, or from fishing the warm, clear Mediterranean water. At ground level, donkey was still the usual mode of transport for most farmers, but 31,000 feet above them, some of the most sophisticated technology ever created was being delicately manoeuvred. The seven-man crew of a 220-ton, US Air Force B-52 Stratofortress, bombreport laden with nuclear weapons, was approaching the last leg of a 24-hour mission, looking forward to returning to their base in North Carolina. Before crossing the Atlantic they had to refuel from another 220-ton behemoth, a KC-125 Stratotanker carrying 30,000 tons of high-octane aviation fuel.
In 1966 the Cold War was at its chilliest. Just four years after the Cuban Missile Crisis, the US and USSR were managing to limit conflict to third world battlegrounds like Vietnam, but both secretly feared the other might launch a pre-emptive nuclear strike at any time. Until ground-launched intercontinental missiles were capable of hitting the Soviet Union, the US Strategic Air Command (SAC) whybitcoinprice relied on Operation Chrome Dome; a fleet of nuclear bombers continually patrolling the borders of the Soviet Union. As SAC commander General Power warned the soviets: “Day and night I have a certain percentage of my command in the air. The planes are bombed up, and they don’t carry bows and arrows.”
Three pilots took shifts aboard the B-52. Senior among them was 44-year-old Major Larry Messinger, ufa168live heavy bomber veteran of 70 combat sorties during World War II and Korea, where he had shown himself to be cool under attack from either Messerschmidt or MiG. Among the four-man Stratotanker crew were two more WWII veterans, both the pilot and boom operator. Yet as Major Messinger manoeuvred his aircraft underneath the belly of the tanker, something went disastrously wrong: “We came in behind the tanker,” Messinger told a later enquiry, “and we were a little bit fast and started to overrun him. The procedure in refuelling is that if the boom operator feels you’re getting too close and are in danger he will call ‘break away break away break away.’ There was no call for a break away so we didn’t see anything dangerous about the situation. All of a sudden all hell seemed to break loose.”
Whether as a result of turbulence or pilot error – the enquiry apportioned no blame – the tanker’s refuelling boom ripped into the B-52, effectively tearing it in two, ripping off a wing and sending the bomber to earth in pieces. The tanker went into a tailspin too, as fire spread up the boom. Inside the several pieces of B-52 plummeted towards the little Spanish village, the crew made a desperate attempt to bail out. Four succeeded in ejecting. For Major Messinger, everything went blank: “I must have hit my head on the way out, because as I came too I wasn’t quite with it. I was tumbling through the air, and though I knew that the chute would automatically open at 14,000 feet, I pulled the ripcord right away. That was the wrong thing to do at 30,000 feet and I started drifting out to sea and towards Africa.” Another airmen’s parachute failed to open at all. The Spanish villager who found the body still strapped into the ejector seat, artistpose said he had, “all the horrors of the world mirrored in his face”.
Two of the crew never made it out of the plane, while another leapt through a hole in the fuselage and landed safely by parachute. No-one survived in the tanker, which exploded just before landing in the cemetery in Palomares. Huge chunks of aircraft miraculously missed schools and village houses. The five-year-old daughter of Maria Badillo ran into her house screaming “Mama, the sky is raining fire.” Bizarrely, five of the dead airmen landed in the village cemetery; the other two were about 100 yards away.
But what of the payload? Each of the four 1.45 megaton B28RI nuclear weapons aboard the B-52 had the destructive power of 1.5 million tons of TNT. Put together this was a combined fire-power of 400 times the bomb dropped on Hiroshima. Had they detonated they would have destroyed most of southern Spain and the coast of Morocco. Millions of people would have been killed, the historic cities of Granada, Malaga and Alicante would have been erased, chronicleshub and tidal waves would have ripped across the Mediterranean.