In 1958, a mid-air collision between two Air Force jets over Georgia led to a high-stakes drama involving a nuclear weapon. The incident, known as the Tybee Island incident, left an unarmed nuclear bomb buried beneath the ocean and sand off the coast of Tybee Island, Georgia. Despite numerous attempts, the bomb has never been recovered, raising questions about its potential risks.
The Fateful Training Mission: On February 5, 1958, a B-47 strategic bomber, piloted by Major Howard Richardson, collided with another jet during a training mission. The B-47 was carrying a Mark 15 thermonuclear bomb as part of a simulated nuclear attack exercise on the Soviet Union. The collision prompted Richardson to make a crucial decision that would mark this incident in history.
The Bomb’s Fate: Unable to safely land with the weight of the weapon, Richardson dropped the nuclear bomb into the ocean from approximately 7,200 feet. Despite extensive search efforts by the Air Force and Navy divers over a 24-square-mile area, the bomb was never recovered. The military eventually deemed it “irretrievably lost.”
The Plutonium Capsule Debate: A key point of contention surrounds whether the bomb contained a plutonium capsule, an essential component for it to function as a nuclear weapon. While official statements insist the bomb was unarmed and lacked a plutonium capsule, declassified documents and conflicting testimonies have added complexity to the narrative.
Legacy of the Cold War: The Tybee Island incident serves as a stark reminder of the uncertainties and dangers of the Cold War era. It highlights the challenges posed by the presence of potentially hazardous relics from that period.
Detecting a bomb underwater
The Tybee Island incident of 1958 left an unarmed nuclear bomb buried beneath the ocean off the coast of Georgia. Despite multiple efforts to locate it, the bomb remains hidden, raising questions about the risks and challenges associated with its retrieval. The incident sheds light on a broader history of nuclear mishaps during the Cold War era.
The Quest for the Lost Bomb: Retired Air Force officer Derek Duke initiated the search for the missing bomb in 2000, prompting the Air Force to weigh the options of recovery versus leaving it undisturbed. A 2001 report indicated that recovery efforts would be costly and carried a low probability of success. Additionally, the bomb was deemed unlikely to explode spontaneously, and it lacked plutonium, reducing immediate risks.
The Dilemma of Retrieval: While there was a potential danger of explosion during retrieval, experts would also need to handle the uranium within the bomb. The prevailing Air Force perspective favored leaving it in place, as attempting to move it could pose greater risks.
Citizen-Led Searches: Despite official assessments, citizens continued their own search efforts. In 2004, Derek Duke believed he had located the bomb based on elevated radiation readings, but the Air Force attributed it to natural minerals in Wassaw Sound. In 2015, another citizen reported unusual sonar readings, prompting military divers to embark on Operation Sleeping Dog, yet the bomb remained elusive.
Government’s Stance on Private Searches: The Department of Energy discourages private searches, emphasizing that past claims lacked evidence to support the discovery of the lost weapon. Such endeavors divert government resources from critical national security and public health responsibilities.
The Future of the Tybee Bomb: The likelihood of finding the bomb remains uncertain, with some speculating that a fortuitous event, such as a powerful storm, may unearth it. While it has eluded detection thus far, the quest to locate this relic of the Cold War era continues.
A Legacy of Near Misses: The Tybee incident is just one of many mishaps involving nuclear weapons. Between 1950 and 1968, the US military grappled with 32 “broken arrow” incidents, underscoring the potential hazards associated with these powerful devices. Such incidents serve as sobering reminders of the narrow escapes from nuclear disasters.
Conclusion: The Tybee Island incident stands as a testament to the challenges of managing nuclear weapons during the Cold War. As the search for the lost bomb persists, it serves as a poignant reminder of an era marked by high-stakes risks and the enduring legacy of those moments.