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B-47 that crashed in Northwest likely carried non-functioning nuclear weapon components

The United States Air Force B-47 Stratojet that crashed northwest of Thunder Bay in 1956 was part of Operation Roadblock, a show of force in the Canadian Arctic during the early stages of the Cold War.

davisTHUNDER BAY - A researcher with the Royal Military College is shining new light on the payload of a United States Air Force B-47 Stratojet that crashed northwest of Thunder Bay in 1956, as well as the role it played in a significant operation in the early stages of the Cold War.

“It is entirely possible that there were components of a weapon,” said Sean Maloney, a professor of military history at the Royal Military College who specializes in the Cold War and nuclear weapons. “I don’t know one way or another exactly, but I am leaning towards there being something on board.”

Maloney discovered more details regarding the B-47 crash and the operation it took part in while researching a new book. He has already published two books on the Cold War including Deconstructing Dr. Strangelove: The Secret History of Nuclear War Films and Emergency War Plan: The American Doomsday Machine, 1945-1960.    

The crash took place northwest of Thunder Bay on Nov. 30, 1956 after the aircraft suffered a problem with its aileron power unit causing it to enter into a bank spin. The pilot was able to eject but three other crewmembers lost their lives.

According to Maloney, the aircraft was taking part in Operation Roadblock, which was a response to escalating threats by the Soviet Union during the Hungarian-Suez Crisis.

Soviet Union leader, Nikita Khrushchev, had threatened to use nuclear weapons during the crisis and one of the primary responses from the west was Operation Roadblock.

“Roadblock actually is really important, much more important than even I realized when I did my dissertation years ago,” Maloney said. “It may have played a key role to convince Khrushchev to back off on all these other things he was doing.”

Show-of-force above the Arctic

In 1956, the Canadian government granted the U.S. Air Force permission to fly 72 B-47s, which were long-range strategic bombers first introduced in 1951, to fly into the Canadian Arctic as a show-of-force to the Soviets.

The request was in response to the Soviets flying 20 aircraft into the Arctic and then going radio silent so they could not be tracked. The 72 B-47s were to rendezvous off the eastern coast of the U.S., fly up the Davis Strait, and turn back at the Arctic circle, with a return flight path directly over Northern Ontario.

This was during a time when tensions were beginning to grow between the two superpowers, both of which were now armed with nuclear weapons.

According to Maloney’s research, 30 of the 72 B-47s took off from a relatively new airbase that did not have a nuclear weapon storage base nearby, so they likely had an empty payload.

“The other half though comes from an air force base in Louisiana called Barksdale,” Maloney said. “This is significant because right next door is an Atomic Energy Commission storage site called Bossier Base and it’s huge. They did a mass load up from what I can tell. It breaks down to basically 30 non-nuclear components and six complete weapons.”

The B-47 that crashed in Northwestern Ontario was part of 301st Bombardment Wing, which was stationed at Barksdale.

The complete nuclear weapons carried by six of the aircraft were likely smaller fission bombs, such as the Mark 4 or Mark 6, and not Thermonuclear weapons, which have a significantly higher yield at 3.8 to 18 megatons compared to 180 kilotons of a Mark 6 bomb.

Nuclear maneuvers

Maloney said at this stage in the Cold War, it wasn’t like in the movie Dr. Strangelove where bombers were constantly airborne with nuclear payloads ready to be dropped, known as an aerial alert.

At the time, fully functional thermal nuclear bombs could not be loaded onto B-47 aircraft. Operation Roadblock was a nuclear maneuver, where nuclear weapon components are loaded onto an aircraft, but not the core, which is needed to create a thermal nuclear explosion.  

“The presidential directive was against thermonuclear weapons being maneuvered completely,” Maloney said, adding the core could not be put into the bomb casing without presidential authorization.. 

Nuclear components were loaded onto aircraft as a way of training the aircrew on how to handle the new jets and the new bombs.

Based on information that the B-47 that crashed in the Northwest was part of the 301st Bombardment Wing stationed at Barksdale Air Force Base and the Bossier Base, Maloney believes it is likely the aircraft carried thermal nuclear weapon components but not a functioning bomb.  

“The system was probably boosted with tritium, there would have been beryllium and something else around the reflector around the primary, and there may have been basically uranium rod around the secondary,” he said. “None of this could have actually yielded.”

Following the crash, a large recovery effort would have taken place, involving both the U.S. Air Force and the Royal Canadian Air Force of between 30 and 40 aircraft to recover the remains of the B-47 and the lost crew.

“They were very serious about recovering the remains of the aircraft, particularly the crew,” Maloney said.  “The recovery effort that takes place right afterwards likely scooped up all those pieces that were left. There also would have been other classified stuff on the plane, like safety systems for the bombs.”

The crash is also not part of the Broken Arrow list, which compiles all known nuclear weapon mishaps.

“They weren’t using that terminology that early, but in this case, I would be thinking there maybe were components on board, but I don’t think a fully functional weapon was on board,” Maloney said.

The Cold War has often been shrouded in secrecy and because nuclear weapons were the property of the Atomic Energy Commission, now the Department of Energy, and not the U.S. Air Force, Maloney said it can be difficult to obtain all the facts, but he plans to continue his research and hopes to uncover more information regarding the crash in Northwestern Ontario.

The crash of the B-47 has sparked interest among local residents for decades. Most recently, there are concerns that a possible logging road near the crash site could result in souvenir hunters removing the few pieces of wreckage that remain.

Rob Farrow, a local adventurer, installed a commemorative plaque at the site honouring the aircrew killed during the crash.

Maloney said he believes those who lost their lives during the Cold War should be remembered, as the conflict is often overshadowed by other events in the 20th century, but there is always a price for peace.

“In any case, the family themselves were kept in the dark and never told what happened, especially when people just disappeared,” he said. “I think it’s important we do remember the people who died during this particular conflict and remind people that peace did have a price and this was part of it.”

Doug Diaczuk

About the Author: Doug Diaczuk

Doug Diaczuk is a reporter and award-winning author from Thunder Bay. He has a master’s degree in English from Lakehead University
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