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When a US Bomber Jet Crashed in Greenland—With 4 Nukes on Board

When a US Bomber Jet Crashed in Greenland—With 4 Nukes on Board
Boeing B-52G in flight. (U.S. Air Force photo)

Open crested ice – When a US Bomber Jet Crashed in Greenland—With 4 Nukes on Board

on Jan. 21, 1968 an American B-52G Stratofortress bomber, carrying four nuclear bombs, crashed onto the sea ice of Wolstenholme Fjord in the northwest corner of Greenland

The bomber – call sign HOBO 28 – had crashed due to human error. One of the crew members had stuffed some seat cushions in front of a heating vent, and they subsequently caught fire. The smoke quickly became so thick that the crew needed to eject. Six of the 7 crew members parachuted out safely before the plane crashed onto the frozen fjord 7 miles west of Thule Air Base – America’s most northern military base, 700 miles north of the Arctic Circle.

The radioactivity was released because the nuclear warheads had been compromised.

The impact of the crash and the subsequent fire had broken open the weapons and released their radioactive contents, but luckily, there was no nuclear detonation.

To be specific, HOBO 28’s nuclear weapons were actually hydrogen bombs. Each of the four Mark 28 F1 hydrogen bombs that HOBO 28 carried were nearly 100 times more powerful than the bomb dropped on Hiroshima (1,400 kilotons versus 15 kilotons).

 

When a US Bomber Jet Crashed in Greenland—With 4 Nukes on Board

The crash severely strained the United States’ relationship with Denmark, since Denmark’s 1957 nuclear-free zone policy had prohibited the presence of any nuclear weapons in Denmark or its territories.

The Thule crash revealed that the United States had actually been routinely flying planes carrying nuclear bombs over Greenland, and one of those illicit flights had now resulted in the radioactive contamination of a fjord.

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After the crash, the United States and Denmark had very different ideas about how to deal with HOBO 28’s wreckage and radioactivity.

The U.S. wanted to just let the bomber wreckage sink into the fjord and remain there, but Denmark wouldn’t allow that.

Denmark wanted all the wreckage gathered up immediately and moved, along with all of the radioactively contaminated ice, to the United States. Since the fate of the Thule Air Base hung in the balance, the U.S. agreed to Denmark’s demands.

Operation Crested Icec

The clock was ticking on the cleanup, code-named operation “Crested Icec,” because, as winter turned into spring, the fjord would begin to melt and any remaining debris would sink 800 feet to the seafloor.

Initial weather conditions were horrible, with temperatures as low as minus 75 degrees Fahrenheit, and wind speeds as high as 80 miles per hour.

In addition, there was little sunlight, because the sun was not due to rise again over the Arctic horizon until mid-February.

Groups of American airmen, walking 50 abreast, swept the frozen fjord looking for all the pieces of wreckage – some as large as plane wings and some as small as flashlight batteries.

Geiger counters and other types of radiation survey meters are used to identify Patches of ice with radioactive contamination

All wreckage pieces were picked up, and ice showing any contamination was loaded into sealed tanks

The successful cleanup helped to heal United States-Denmark relations. But nearly 30 years later, the Thule incident spawned a new political controversy in Denmark. In 1995, a Danish review of internal government documents revealed that Danish Prime Minister H.C. Hansen had actually given the United States tacit approval to fly nuclear weapons into Thule. Thus, the Danish government had to share some complicity in the Thule incident.

 

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