Catastrophically dangerous Tybee Bomb may unleash power 65 years on

Video news report on the Tybee Bomb

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Around 18 miles (29km) east of Savannah in the US lies the barrier location of Tybee Island, a city of just over 3,000 in Chatham County, Georgia. For its residents the island is renowned with Americans thanks to its “From Rabun Gap to Tybee Light” mantra, a phrase intended to demonstrate the geographic diversity of Georgia, comparing the state’s most northern point with its fabled coastal lighthouse. Yet, for those alive in 1958, Tybee Island is forever entwined with a terrifying event that could have had ruinous consequences.

On this day 65 years ago, the crews of a United States Air Force Boeing B-47 Stratojet fighter plane were carrying out a planned, routine exercise in the waters just off Tybee Island.

Aboard was a Mark 15 nuclear bomb, weighing in at around 3,400kg (7,600lb). It was 2am, and for the Armed Forces personnel aboard the plane, it was a regular, wintry morning; a routine training.

But in a horrifying twist, the B-47, which was on a simulated combat mission from Florida’s Homestead Air Force Base some 500 miles (850km) up the coast, collided with an F-86 fighter plane.

The F-86’s pilot ejected from his plane, while the damaged B-47 began its deadly decline towards the crashing waters of Wassaw Sound, off the shores of Tybee Island. It left its pilot, Colonel Howard Richardson, with a decision to make about the cargo he was carrying.

Were he to keep the nuclear bomb on board, the aircrew would almost certainly perish if it was detonated. On the other hand, he could still save the failing fighter plane. The aircraft was falling fast, its original height of 38,000 feet (12,000m) was now barely at 18,000 feet (5,500m).

The colonel opted to take every precaution and eject the bomb from the aircraft, regaining control of the B-47 as he did.

Permission was granted to cast off the bomb, helping reduce the plane’s weight while preventing the nuclear weapon from exploding during the emergency landing.

As the bomb was released, the crew waited, expecting to hear and see the devastating explosion as the weapon struck the North Atlantic Ocean. But nothing happened.

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Their attention quickly turned back to their own plight, with Colonel Richardson managing to steer the aircraft to the safety of Hunter Air Force Base, a nearby Savannah site that has previously been identified by NASA as an alternate landing site for Space Shuttle orbiters.

Colonel Richardson’s efforts would go down in history, earning him the Distinguished Flying Cross. But the mystery of the bomb continued.

For the following 10 weeks, more than 100 Navy personnel unsuccessfully attempted to locate the nuke. They were armed with hand-held sonar and galvanic drag and cable sweeps, but by April 16, it was announced the search had not found anything.

It left many fearing the undetonated device could still go off, potentially causing destruction depending on where it eventually rested. Seven decades later, those fears remain.

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Author Christopher Berniato, author of the 2019 historical publication Secret Savannah: A Guide to the Weird, Wonderful, and Obscure, outlined how deadly such a detonation could be for those trying to find it and the local community.

He noted the “conflicting reports as to just how catastrophically dangerous the bomb is,” outlining the US government’s initial thoughts that it only “contained a dummy trigger and didn’t pose a threat unless it was disturbed”.

Yet, Mr Berniato suggests that a 1994 declassified document “told a different story”. He continued: “According to 1966 Congressional testimony by then Assistant Secretary of Defense W.J. Howard to the US Congressional Joint Committee on Atomic Energy, the lost weapon was a complete, fully functional bomb with a nuclear capsule.

“If that is the case, and the bomb does indeed contain a plutonium trigger, the resulting explosion would include a fireball with a radius of over a mile and thermal radiation for up to 10 times that distance… There are better ways to get a tan at Tybee Island.”

Among the theories of what could have happened to the bomb include the possibility that a Soviet submarine recovered it, explaining why the US authorities have never been able to find it themselves.

Whether the weapon is functional has long been a topic of discussion. If the bomb had a plutonium nuclear core, it would be considered a “fully functional weapon”, whereas if it had a dummy core, as has been suggested, then it would be “incapable of producing a nuclear explosion but could still produce a conventional explosion”.

Almost 50 years after the B-47 released the nuclear weapon, a retired Air Force Lieutenant Colonel, Derek Duke, believed he had managed to narrow down its exact resting place. He claimed to have found a football pitch-sized space it may have touched down as a result of nuclear levels, and radiation, being emitted from it.

However, the bomb’s location continues to remains a mystery.

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