On January 17th, 1966 a B-52G bomber set off from North Carolina on a Cold War airborne mission that was code-named Operation Chrome Dome. The plan was for the plane to make it all the way from North Carolina to the European borders of the Soviet Union and back without stopping. This meant that the bomber had to do two mid-air refuelings over Spain.
Operation Chrome Dome was a continuous operation from 1960 until 1968 in which B-52 bombers remained armed with thermonuclear weapons and on continuous alert. The planes were constantly flying routes that led them to various points along the border of the Soviet Union. There were at any given time at least a dozen bombers flying routes to and from the Soviet Union to ensure first strike or retaliation capabilities for the U.S. The operation was supposed to be one way to keep Americans safe during the Cold War but throughout the course of the 8-year operation there were 6 accidents and each time the planes were carrying nuclear weapons.
At around 10:20 in the morning on January 17th the B-52 bomber commanded by Captain Charles Wendorf was flying over Spain on the return home from flying along the Soviet-Turkish border. The plane was preparing to refuel and was meeting up with a KC-135 tanker. As the B-52 tried to maneuver under the tanker and connect the boom, it became obvious that the B-52 was coming in too fast. Relief pilot Major Larry Messinger stated that he was never told by the tanker that he needed to break away. So despite coming in too fast he did not realize there was any danger to the situation.
The b-52 struck the KC-135, causing the refueling boom to hit the fuselage. The hit broke a longeron and snapped off the left wing of the B-52. Both planes were covered in fuel which led to an explosion that was seen by another B-52 over a mile away. The entire crew of the KC-135 perished in the explosion and three of the seven men aboard the B-52 also died as a result of the collision. Five of the seven crew members were able to eject from the plane but the parachute of one of them never deployed. The four surviving men were found and taken to hospital in Aguilas.
The loss of seven men was only the beginning for this deadly mid-air collision. The bigger concern quickly became the 4 nuclear bombs that each had 70 times the destructive power of the Hiroshima bomb and had been on the B-52 and were now falling to the ground over Spain. Read on to find out what happened next.