On the night of February 5, 1958 a B-47 bomber, carrying a hydrogen bomb on a night training flight off the Georgia coast, collided with an F-86 fighter at 36,000 feet. At the time, crews in training are said to have routinely carried transportation-configured nuclear bombs, with the detonation capsules removed to prevent a nuclear explosion. This gave the bomber crews the opportunity to practice with a weapons-loaded aircraft. The collision destroyed the fighter and severely damaged a wing of the bomber, leaving one of its engines partially dislodged. After three unsuccessful attempts to land with the bomb, the bomber's pilot, Maj. Howard Richardson, was instructed to jettison the H-bomb before attempting a landing. Richardson dropped the bomb into the shallow waters of the mouth of the Savannah River, about five kilometers from the city of Tybee Island, where it was believed that the bomb would be swiftly recovered. A month into this search, the Air Force, having a very bad bomb month, abruptly halted this search and sent its teams to Florence, SC, where another H-bomb had been accidentally dropped by a B-47. This bomb's 200 pounds of TNT exploded on impact, sending radioactive debris across the landscape. While the explosion caused property damage and several injuries on the ground, the design of a nuclear weapon makes an uncontrolled atomic explosion nearly impossible. The search teams never returned to Tybee Island and the government declared the Savannah bomb irretrievably lost.
Weapons are normally jettisoned in the safe mode, meaning they are incapable nuclear detonation, although the lost bomb contained 400 pounds of conventional explosive, which was used to create a super-critical reaction in the nuclear core, the requirement for a nuclear blast. The 11-foot-long bomb was reportedly a Mk-15 (code named Castle Nectar/Zombie), weighing 7,600 pounds and with a calculated yield of one megaton. The Mk-15 was the first thermonuclear weapon deployed by the USAF.
The search for an H-bomb, lost in 1958 during a mid-air collision, has been revived by a small private group near Savannah, GA. Government officials and scientists met in September with Lt. Col. Derek Duke, USAF (retired), who has been looking for the four-ton bomb since 1999. Duke recently reported detecting unusually high radiation readings near Georgias Tybee Island. His request for several hundred thousand more dollars from the government, to continue the search, has so far been refused.
Nuclear bombs of that era were huge and the B-47 had been developed just to have a jet-powered airplane large enough to carry one to the Soviet Union. The B-47 of the late 1940s was a bridge airplane between the 10-engine B-36 and the later, and larger, jet-powered B-52. The B-47 was a strange design, thanks to the fighter pilot community that forced it to be configured like the worlds biggest jet fighter, with one pilot sitting behind the other like the fighter aircraft of the time. A navigator/bombardier rounded-out the crew, sitting in the dark of the cave-like fuselage. The six-engine, 230,000 pound aircraft needed almost 11,000 feet for takeoff, carrying a 20,000 pound bomb load, and could fly 3,500 km (unrefueled).
The Savannah bomb, having been damaged by hitting the water and then having sat in salt water for 46 years, is likely to have decayed substantially, increasing the likelihood of radioactive material finally leaking into the water. Over the years, anti-military and anti-nuclear activists have keep-up a low-level but sustained chorus of potential disaster scenarios involving this bomb. After the attack on New York in September, 2001, local residents again started talking about the lost bomb, with some maintaining that it is only a matter of time before terrorists come to the area to somehow salvage the bomb and use it to attack a US city. The US government admits to eleven broken arrows since 1945 incidents which have resulted in the loss or damage to nuclear weapons.
Despite official disinterest by the government, Duke and his supporters remain determined that the bomb to be found. Using a Boston Whaler type boat, a Geiger counter, and GPS positioning device, Duke and his small band of supporters keep trolling the waters off Savannah, looking for the lost four-ton bomb. A local newspaper quotes Duke at on one such mission as stopping the boat, sitting for a moment, and saying, "It's down there. Somewhere." K.B. Sherman