On March 11th, 1958 a US Air Force B-47 bomber took off from Hunter Air Force Base in Savannah, Georgia carrying a Mark 6 nuclear bomb destined to be delivered to a base in the United Kingdom.  The Mark 6 was a fission nuclear bomb with an explosive yield of 30 kilotons, double the yield of the bomb dropped on Hiroshima.

MK 6 Nuclear Bomb

After takeoff the pilot of the B-47, Captain Earl Koehler, noticed a fault light indicating that the bomb locking pin had not engaged.  The automatic locking system was malfunctioning, meaning that Bombadier/Navigator Captain Bruce Kalka would need to descend into the bomb bay and manually set the pin.  Kulka actually had little training in the B-47′s operating systems, and thus could not find where the pin was located.  After several minutes of searching, he found the pin mechanism above the bomb, prompting him to climb towards it.  In the cramped bomb bay Kulka instinctively grabbed onto a lever for a handhold, a lever which just happened to be the bomb release mechanism.  The 7,000 lb bomb slammed onto the bomb bay doors, forcing them open. Kulka himself had a mere fraction of a second to grab onto something lest he too drop through the bomb doors.

Fortunately the Mark 6 bomb was not armed, during transportation such weapons have their nuclear cores stored separately on the plane just in case of such accidents. However, the bomb still contained a large amount of conventional explosives which is used to detonate the bomb.  The bomb landed in the woods behind the home of the Gregg family near Mars Bluff, South Carolina.  Father Walter Gregg was in the garage fixing a bench with his son Walter Jr.  His wife Elfie was in the house sewing, while his two daughters Helen, Frances, and cousin Ella Davies were playing in the back yard. All present recall hearing a jet flying over, followed by a whistling sound and then a loud explosion.  The house sustained major damage as a result of the blast, with Elfie buried under rubble.  Walter and Walter Jr. exited the garage as it began to collapse, while the girls came running from the back yard covered in cuts and other wounds.  One of the girls, who had been playing in a tree house, was blown clear of the tree house. Walter Gregg extricated his wife from the house then gathered his family and raced them to the hospital.  Fortunately none suffered life threatening injuries.

The bomb not only damaged the Gregg house but a dozen other houses and a church nearby, resulting in shattered windows, collapsed chimneys, dozens of dead chickens, and some car accidents at a nearby highway. The blast also resulted in a crater 50 feet wide and 20 feet deep. After the accident, the B-47 crew circled around and took a photo of the devastation, then reported back to base.

Photo from B-47 (above) Photo of crater (below)

The Gregg family sued the US Government and received $30,000 in damages, roughly $500,000 adjusted for inflation.  Incredibly Walter Gregg became good friends with the crew, who reached out to the family to apologize for the accident.  Walter Gregg passed away in 2013 at the age of 92.

A month before the accident another USAF bomber had accidentally dropped a hydrogen bomb into the Atlantic Ocean.  These two accidents prompted the US Air Force increased safety regulations to prevent such accidents from re-recurring, and to use more stable conventional explosives in nuclear weapons.

25 COMMENTS

  1. I always loved the idea of “anti-flash paint schemes”.

    Must’ve made the crews feel extra-positive about the mission.
    -Kle.

    • For the historical record, most nuclear weapon delivery plans in that era had a low to very low probability of crew survival (we don’t say suicide missions). The nuclear demolition weapons intended for deployment by SEAL teams carried with it that yes, there was a timer, but did it work? No way of telling. Likely, you’d be blasted into elementary particles when you flipped the switch and the timer was a way of offering you ‘some hope’ of getting clear before the nuclear weapon detonated.

      And the B-47 was very much a death trap all and of itself. Yes, SAC used them for a long time, but escape from them (meet your maker in a Martin Baker – ejection seat) was more than just a cliche. And while the pilot and co-pilot ejected upward in their Martin Bakers, the navigator ejected downward in an ejection seat built by Stanley Aviation. So if there was a problem on the runway or shortly after take-off, you’d be ejecting into the ground. And if you ejected downward at high altitude, there was a statistical likelihood of internal rupture (your guts would blast out of your mouth).

      Thus, feeling positive about the mission made the anti-flash paint look pretty tame.

      • Well, to be fair, they say you can also escape from a submarine using the escape hatch…

        Yeah, not so much…

        My dad loved flying the nuke delivery used by the F-84G to bomb-toss a nuke. He did say he wasn’t sure he’d survive a real bomb toss, but the maneuver itself was fun.

        Anti-flash paint worked. The paint would ablate, stopping the transmittal of all of the heat and some of the radiation from the initial pulse. As long as the plane took it on the anti-flash painted portion. And they were far enough away to escape the neutron pulse and the rest of the bad parts of a nuke explosion. Eh, in a real nuke war, not many would survive one way or another.

        It’s like that 80’s computer game, B-1 Bomber. Where you go bomb the USSR and when you come back to base successfully, the game tells you “Good job, you won, now you die of radiation poisoning…”

  2. An air national guard F-105 “Thud” flying out of McConnell on the se corner of Wichita crashed through a house a couple of miles from the runway. The owner of the house had a abnormal amount of sex aids and toys spread throughout the crash scene. He settled for a extremely quick payout.

    • “My God, not only did the ANG destroy my house, they bombed my property with sex toys! What is WRONG with you people? I demand a full IG investigation!”

      DARVO: Deny everything, Admit nothing, Reverse Victim and Offender.
      [political rant typed, then erased — you’re welcome]

      This case also raises the question of what constitutes a normal amount of sex toys.

      • Thank you Mike_C. That’s precisely my point. Who says that X number of sex toys is too many? If you have a flying trapeze in your house it makes you a pervert?

        • Nah, he was just a poor teacher and needed a side business…was probably more worried about the IRS hammering him for the home office deduction for manufacturing said “toys”, because, you know, can’t have people trying to earn a few extra bucks. (DARVO – good one Mike_C, altho I was disappointed to not read the political rant.)

          • I made a mistake. DARVO = Deny. Attack. Reverse Victim and Offender.

            Conflated it with what to do when caught in a lie: DAMN = deny everything, admit nothing, make counter accusations, never change your story.

            Thanks, but you didn’t miss anything on the rant. My usual complaints about our not-so-secret ruling classes and their apparent hypocrisy. Much of it is psychological abuse (per classic DARVO), and some of it is projection (e.g. stories of terrible cruelty that have become part of popular culture, but have since been quietly redacted from official/scholarly works — things that never happened, but they’d like to do those things to us).

          • Well perhaps bombardment with sex toys would be preferable to what happened in 1965 when a KC-135 loaded with gas to pass crashed on take-off from McConnell and incinerated a number of houses adjacent to Wichita State University, along with all seven aircrew and twenty-three civilian-types on the ground. Hell of a mess, that…..

  3. Didn’t the military invent the term FUBAR? Accidents happen, but geez…there you are having a nice day puttering around the homestead when a bomb gets let loose near you. Can’t imagine the “Oh crap!” moment with the crew. With today’s lawyers, damages would be jacked up to tens of millions (because they get 40%), although half a mil seems a little light considering.

  4. Was the B-47 the basis for the B-52, what with the swept wings, long fuselage and landing wheel configuration? I often wondered about using a fighter plane style of cockpit and canopy on that plane. I remember the Jimmie Stewart movie and the subplot about how uncomfortable it was besides his psychical injury he was hiding. Is that why the used the B-52 tandem cockpit. I remember seeing early conceptual drawing of the B-52 using a fighter style of cockpit.

    • The first YB-52 had the tandem canopy cockpit.

      While the early nuclear bombardment missions may have been “suicide” missions, there were quite a few long runways in Turkey where our bombers might recover if they were not already large radioactive holes in the ground.

      • Yes, there were plans to recover bombers. The TAC types that were using gravity bombs from F-4’s were less likely to make it. Aircraft were equipped with special anti-flash equipment to keep the pilot from being blinded, etc. In one first hand account, there was only ONE eye protected from being blinded. I think that the loss of an eye, granted the victim a 25% military disability pension…

        • The side-by-side seating in a B-52 or a smaller jet like a Navy A-6 intruder was preferred by crews. Or the EA6B where it was two-and-two. Now we’re back to tandem with the F-18G. I don’t know what the flight crews think.

    • Partially an example of parallel evolution. Form follows function. You want the aircraft to perform at this speed and this altitude and this range with this bomb-load. It’s how you get an Italian plane that looks like a French plane that looks like a Russian plane that looks like an American plane that looks like a Japanese plane that looks like a German plane. Seriously, look at all the WWII fighters that look like a P-51. There’s a surprisingly large number of “must look again else I shoot down my side’s version.”

      And, yes, lessons learned from the -47 were used in the -52.

    • Yeah. There are some wretched bomb shelters located in Europe, built by USGOV. You wouldn’t want to live in them.

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