On Sept. 15, 1980, Nearly four decades ago, a U.S. Air Force B-52H bomber, armed with eight nuclear-tipped AGM-69A Short Range Attack Missiles and four B28 nuclear gravity bombs, burned for hours at Grand Forks Air Force Base in North Dakota.
The bomber and its six-person crew, assigned to the 319th Bomb Wing, were sitting on alert status at Grand Forks on the night of Sept. 15, 1980.
The aircraft’s number five engine burst into flames during an engine start at around 9:00 PM local time. The crew immediately evacuated the aircraft and firefighters ultimately battled the blaze for three hours before getting it under control.
Winds were high that night, blowing to the southwest with gusts registering between 26 and 35 miles per hour. The blasts of air kept the massive cone of flame from the burning engine blowing forward of the aircraft.
In the end, three firefighters suffered minor injuries and another one, along with a member of the bomber’s crew, received treatment for smoke inhalation after the accident.
A subsequent investigation found that maintenance personnel had improperly reassembled a fuel strainer, which exists in the aircraft’s fuel system to catch any particulate matter before it enters the engine, which could potentially cause damage of its own.
The result was additional fuel flowing into the engine, leading to the fire. The nature of the fuel leak contributed to the difficulty in putting out the fire, as the number three-wing tank in the fully fueled bomber kept feeding the flames.
Years later, despite previous assurances that the risk of a nuclear accident had been low, the director of the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, a key U.S. nuclear weapons research and development facility, testified that the incident had actually come very close to being “worse than Chernobyl.”
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