In February 1950, at the height of the Cold War, a U.S. Air Force B-36 bomber carrying an unarmed nuclear bomb disappeared along the north coast of British Columbia. This excerpt from Dirk Septer’s detailed study of the incident describes the hours leading up to the crash, an event that to this day remains shrouded in secrecy and unanswered questions.
Shortly before midnight on Monday, Feb. 13, 1950, radio operators at the United States Air Force’s Strategic Air Command headquarters at Offutt Air Force Base in Nebraska received distress calls from B-36 Bomber 075, which was flying off the north coast of British Columbia. The giant aircraft was en route from Eielson AFB near Fairbanks, Alaska, to its home base at Carswell AFB, Fort Worth, Texas. The bomber had taken off two days earlier from Carswell AFB for a training mission to Alaska and back, to test the operational characteristics of the aircraft and its payload under severe winter conditions.
Although Bomber 075’s mission was to test all wartime operations, the mission’s real purpose was most likely to carry out a test for arming the Mark IV nuclear bomb that was on board. By this time, the Mark IV bomb had been part of the U.S. military’s inventory for a year or more, but the arming procedure, known as in-flight insertion of the core (IFI), had only been practised on the ground. The ultimate test of the arming procedure would require the presence of an operational bomb on board.
Capt. Harold L. Barry, a 30-year-old pilot from Hillsborough, Illinois, was in command of Bomber 075, with First Lieutenant Ray Whitfield Jr., 25, serving as co-pilot. Barry had a total flying time of 1,403 hours, of which about 900 hours had been spent on B-36 aircraft. Whitfield had volunteered to be one of the co-pilots so he could look after “his aircraft,” since Bomber 075 was permanently assigned to him. The regular 16-member crew of Bomber 075 included a five-man relief shift for the B-36’s long-haul, non-stop capability. In addition to the regular crew, there was also an observer on board, Lt.-Col. Daniel V. MacDonald.
Two specially trained crew members were involved with the delivery of an atomic bomb: the weaponeer, who armed the bomb, and the bomb commander, who supervised the weaponeer and certified that the bomb was “ready.” The bomb commander usually held the rank of colonel; in the case of Bomber 075 it was the observer, MacDonald, who was attached to the Office of Plans and Operations at USAF headquarters. MacDonald was not a regular member of the 075 crew, so his presence suggests that practising the arming procedure on the Mark IV was part of the mission.
Col. John D. Bartlett, commanding officer of 436 Squadron at Fort Worth, headed the crew that ferried Bomber 075 up to Eielson from Carswell. Bartlett was the Eighth Air Force’s original B-36 project officer and the Seventh Wing’s chief pilot for transition training from B-29s to B-36s.
It was extremely cold when the bomber landed at Eielson. One of the crew members described the conditions as “minus 40 degrees, snow and wind, miserable! De-icing was impossible in those conditions. The engines remained running at all times to provide de-icing heat for the aircraft. If the engines were stopped, the oil would solidify.”
The flight from Alaska to Texas would be lengthy, estimated at 16 to 24 hours. The aircraft carried enough fuel for 28 hours in the air. Besides carrying 252 pounds of 20-mm aircraft cannon ammunition, Bomber 075 also carried an 11,000-pound Mark IV atomic fission bomb. The Alaska training exercise was described as a “developmental” flight for perfecting operational procedures for nuclear-armed bombers operating out of forward bases in the Arctic. Research conducted by the privately funded Center for Defense Information in Washington, D.C., revealed that the bomber was actually on a “simulated combat profile” exercise, originating in Alaska, to perform a mass attack on the west coast of the United States.
The plan was to fly from Carswell AFB to the forward staging area at Eielson AFB in Alaska, where the aircraft would refuel and take on supplies. After the ferry crews who had flown the bombers to Alaska were replaced by combat crews, the aircraft would then fly its mission and return to home base. The three-day mission was to see four B-36 Peacemakers take off on the first day, followed by three aircraft per day for the next two days. Before the exercise was called off during the third segment of the mission because of 075’s crash, eight aircraft had taken off.
At 4:27 p.m., Bomber 075 left the ground at a speed of between 135 and 140 miles per hour. As was later revealed in USAF records, the weight and balance form retrieved from Alaska asserted that the bomber was 51,570 pounds over its recommended maximum takeoff weight of 278,000 pounds. Although this may seem dramatic, this discrepancy was not considered unusual.
Bartlett, who was in the tower, asked Barry how the flight was going in its early moments and reported: “He said the inboard flaps had stuck, which seems to be something that sticks with this great differential in temperature because it happened on the other aircraft.” There is no record of mechanical difficulty prior to 11:14 p.m., about seven hours into the flight, when VHF contact was made with Bomber 083, which was in approximately the same location.
South of Sitka, Alaska, Bomber 075 ran into cloudy conditions and started to climb. At that moment, the airplane’s gross weight was estimated at 278,000 pounds.
Before entering the clouds, all engines had been operating satisfactorily, but after the climb, the propellers began surging while in automatic position. One of Bomber 075’s flight engineers, Lieutenant Ernest O. Cox Jr., of Pampa, Texas, switched the engines to manual control. Cox discovered that to hold the propellers at the desired 2,300 revolutions per minute, he would have to adjust them continually, which he was unable to do. He thought the aircraft was picking up considerable propeller ice.
About 11 p.m., Bomber 075 requested that Bomber 083 relay a message informing air traffic control that it was 80 miles northeast of Sandspit, on Moresby Island in the Queen Charlotte Islands (now known as Haida Gwaii). The first distress signal was issued by Barry, who said the aircraft was in difficulty while flying at 12,000 feet. “We started picking up some ice,” Staff Sgt. Dick Thrasher recalled.
“At 0725Z [11:25 p.m. Pacific Standard Time] they said they lost an engine and started to let down about 0730,” recalled an 083 crew member.
At the official inquiry into the incident, Cox described the weather as “raining and sleet, snow, very little snow and rain, freezing rain.” When specifically questioned by Col. Salvatore E. Manzo, “Freezing rain?” Cox answered: “Yes, sir.” The outside temperature during Bomber 075’s final flight varied from -17°F to -19°F at 12,000 feet. Although the propellers were surging erratically, no one heard any ice coming off the props. Barry decided that they had encountered icing conditions and gave the order to climb to 15,000 feet.
Then, from the rear of the bomber, a crew member reported that engine No. 1 was on fire. Barry immediately feathered the engine to reduce drag, but when the propeller started turning backward, the engine stopped. The aircraft levelled off at 15,000 feet because it could not climb higher. Then the same crew member reported a fire in No. 2 engine. Approximately one and a half minutes after No. 2 engine was feathered, No. 5 engine caught fire and also had to be feathered. The aircraft started losing altitude rapidly.
Amidst the severe on-board conditions of 075, its crew had tried to stay in contact with 083. As the aircraft approached the coast of British Columbia, Barry radioed: “One engine is feathered. Two others are losing power. We are descending.” The weather in the area during the time of the distress call, as recorded at Cape St. James on the southern tip of the Queen Charlotte Islands, was overcast skies with a 500-foot ceiling, visibility three miles in light rain, wind southeast at 52 miles per hour. A second message from Bomber 075 reported: “One engine on fire. Contemplate ditching in Queen Charlotte Sound between Queen Charlotte Island and Vancouver Island. Keep a careful lookout for flares or wreckage.”
The fires eventually went out on all three burning engines. Emergency power was applied to the remaining three engines, but the torque pressure did not increase. At 11:41 p.m., Bomber 083 received a message from the stricken 075 that the aircraft was letting down over water. At 11:55 p.m., the U.S. Civil Aeronautics Administration (CAA) reported that the aircraft’s last known position was 53°00’N, 129°29’W on a heading of 30 degrees. This put the aircraft just west of Princess Royal Island.
As the official report on the loss of Bomber 075 put it, “the last call was at 0740 Zebra [11:40 p.m. PST]. They said [they had] lost engines and they might have to bail out.”
The crew of Bomber 075 never knew whether their last transmission was heard because they received no response. All they knew was that Bomber 083 was in range of their VHF radio. Only later did they learn that the other aircraft had actually received their messages.
After the third of the six engines died and they started their rapid descent, Barry made the decision to jump and ditch the aircraft in Queen Charlotte Sound.