Nova staff writer and researcher Moran chronicles a largely forgotten Air Force disaster.
On Jan. 17, 1966, a U.S. Air Force B-52 crashed during a routine mission over Spain, dispersing four nuclear warheads across the tomato fields and inciting two months of furor and panic before all the bombs were safely retrieved. Moran sifts through this shocking episode, bringing it to life with sprightly prose. During the “golden age” of the Strategic Air Command and the development of the Air Force, a continuous airborne alert was put in effect over Western skies, which stipulated that at least 12 bombers were kept in the air at all times, many probably carrying nuclear bombs. In this Cold War era, the ill-fated flight captained by Charles Wendorf carried four hydrogen bombs, each packing 1.45 megatons of explosive power (70 times that which leveled Hiroshima). The plane was to fly across the Atlantic and circle the Mediterranean, where it would refuel midair over Cuevas and Palomares with the help of a KC-135 Stratotanker, then return to base in North Carolina. However, while refueling, the planes collided and ignited. Moran investigates the military’s absurd scramble for recovery and spin control, the helpful discoveries by local fishermen and shepherds and the rather incredible insouciance over the spilling of plutonium on land and at sea. Displaying a solid grasp of U.S. military maneuvers, she also provides the fascinating story of the Navy’s experimental mini-submarine Alvin, which was used for recovery of the elusive fourth bomb.
An able exploration of one of the turning points in nuclear-arms awareness.