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THE THULE INCIDENT (Posted: Jan 15,   Modified: Jan 15)
There is a US military base of some 250 square miles on the western coast of Greenland. Its construction began in 1953 and by 1968 it was an integral part of the US nuclear defence system. It is located on the edge of North Star Bay between Baffin Island and Greenland, a remote and desolate spot.

In 1968 on 21st January in common with many previous days/nights operations “Chrome Dome” was in progress. The operation was said to be a training exercise but this particular exercise contained the ability to change from training to reality at any given moment with global consequences. Chrome Dome kept a B52 stratofortress in the air above Greenland 24 hours a day. It was a contingency plan by the USA Strategic Air Command to maintain communication and pre-empt a Soviet first strike against the Early Warning System located at Thule air base. The plan required that the designated B52 was to carry nuclear weapons. It carried four type B28FI hydrogen bombs each one capable of devastating Moscow [then as now Europe’s largest city] Chrome Dome was not unique the British RAF flew identical missions using the Vulcan and Victor V bombers.

The flight was a routine that had been followed on many previous missions and proceeded normally up to the air to air refuelling by the KC-135 stratotanker which was in the flight plan. Events began to deviate from normal when the autopilot used to synchronize the two planes in position so that refuelling could take place developed a fault. The docking manoeuvre had to be carried out manually by a co-pilot. Around an hour after the refuelling was completed and following several complaints that the cabin temperature was very low the rheostat was turned up to compensate for what was thought to be an exceptionally low ambient air temperature. The temperature continued to fall despite the rheostat now being at its maximum setting. The co-pilot opened an engine bleed to increase cabin temperature and began to decrease the rheostat setting. Some thirty minutes later far from complaining that it was too cold the crew now said it was too hot, uncomfortably hot.
At 15.22, after six hours of the flight time had elapsed the B52 was approximately 90 miles south of the Thule air base the crew reported a fire on the lower deck of the aircraft to the Captain. The Captain responded by giving the order to attack the fire with the on board fire extinguishers whilst he notified flight control at Thule that they had a problem. Several minutes later the Captain had determined that the on-board fire fighting equipment was exhausted and the fire was out of control. He gave the order to the crew to eject and transmitted his position as 76 Deg, 31 Min North; 69 Deg, 13 Min West. He remained aboard the aircraft until he had heard the explosion’s from all of his crew’s ejection seats and satisfied that his crew had left the aircraft the Captain ejected, a Co-pilot who did not have an ejector seat used his parachute and bailed out through a lower escape hatch. The crew who all used ejector seats survived but one of the Co-pilots who used the parachute did not. The aircraft a B52G crash landed into North Star Bay 7 and a half miles due south of Thule airbase in temperatures in excess of -40C[-40F]. The impact and subsequent inferno caused by the ignition of the almost intact full fuel load burned for more than 6 hours at the crash site. Several explosions took place and it was thought that the more violent of these explosions was the conventional explosive charges contained in the four nuclear bombs used to trigger the chain reaction to set off the bombs. The extreme heat in tandem with the initial impact of the crash aided and abetted by the detonated explosive triggers of the bombs penetrated the frozen sea ice of North Star Bay allowing the debris of the fire stricken BG52G to slip into the sea water below the ice taking with it its lethal bomb load. It was maintained that no nuclear explosion took place and that all four devices sank with the aircraft but the latent heat required to convert the sea ice into sea water was far in excess of the energy contained in the burning fuel and the conventional explosives aboard the aircraft. At the point of impact there was less than 222,000 pounds of aviation fuel available to fuel a fire. The average ice thickness was in excess of 55 inches [1.4 metres approx]. Any ensuing fire would have had to overcome the average ambient air temperature of -40 centigrade [dropping to -60C] whilst simultaneously melting the ice and provide enough heat to prevent the sea ice reforming. The wind speed at the time was 85 to 95 mph or 40/42 metres/sec] and there was no daylight until conditions moved to Arctic twilight on the 24th of January, the scenario holds all of the hallmarks of a nuclear “hot-spot” and not a conventional fire.

The crash site was heavily contaminated and radio active material was widely distributed in the area. Recovered materials included Uranium 235, Plutonium and Americium. The Pentagon released a statement at the time of the incident claiming that all four bombs had been destroyed in the accident. However based on what was recovered they realised that they could only account for three of the four devices. The fourth, a type B28FI serial number 78252 remains missing to this day, 40 years after the incident. A more disturbing aspect was that amongst the items recovered was the deployment parachute of the fourth weapon, the parachute would have been deployed during the first stage use of the weapon.

JP.
   

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