When a B-52 pitched up and collided with a KC-135 over Palomares: the story of the most famous Broken Arrow accident

When a B-52 pitched up and collided with a KC-135 over Palomares: the story of the most famous Broken Arrow accident

By Dario Leone
Jun 15 2024
Sponsored by: Osprey Publishing
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Operation Chrome Dome

Operation Chrome Dome was Strategic Air Command‘s unprecedented nuclear deterrence operation, a hugely elaborate and costly response to the perceived nuclear missile threat from the Soviet Union.

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In his book Chrome Dome 1960–68 The B-52s’ high-stakes Cold War nuclear operation, Cold War aviation historian Peter E. Davies explains how for eight years, Chrome Dome required 12 B-52 Stratofortresses to maintain a ceaseless airborne alert within striking distance of Soviet targets, orbiting over the Mediterranean and north of Alaska. Each bomber stayed aloft for 24 hours, flying for around 10,000 miles until relieved by another. In each cockpit a top-secret Combat Mission Folder contained details of the routes and procedures for a nuclear attack on a pre-determined Soviet target.

Dramatic and controversial, the years of unrelenting Chrome Dome missions saw several B-52 crashes and losses of nuclear weapons (Broken Arrow accidents), most famously that off the Spanish coast.

Palomares Broken Arrow accident

B-52G-115-BW 58-0256 Tea 16 of the 51st BS, 68th BW Seymour-Johnson AFB, one of only four Chrome Dome airborne alert aircraft at the time on Jan. 16/17, 1966. It took off from Seymour-Johnson AFB at dawn, reaching the furthest extent of the mission around the Soviet–Turkish border after refueling over the Golden Spur Air Refueling Area, Spain by a tanker from Torrejon Troubadour 11 and 13.

KC-135R print
This print is available in multiple sizes from AircraftProfilePrints.com – CLICK HERE TO GET YOURS. KC-135R Stratotanker 161st Air Refueling Wing, 197th Air Refueling Squadron “Copperheads”, 63-8038 – Arizona Air National Guard – Sky Harbor ANG Base, AZ

On the return flight along the southern route it refueled over the Almeria coast from KC-135A 61-273 of the 910th ARS at Moron, piloted by Maj Emil J. Chapla. B-52G Tea 12, in the lead position, was being refueled by KC-135A Troubadour 12 in the same area, the Saddle Rock Air Refueling Area.

Over 750,000 SAC safe aerial refuelings had taken place since 1959, with only the October 1959 collision over Kentucky. At the height of Chrome Dome, refuelings were taking place every six minutes. Closing, by agreement, at a slightly higher speed than planned, Tea 16 collided with 910th AREFS, 4130th SW, Bergstrom AFB (97th BW) KC-135A 61-0273 Troubadour 14 during refueling at 30,500ft, two miles inland over the village of Palomares.

The accident report

The accident report concluded that the staff relief pilot, World War II B-17 bomber veteran Maj Larry G. Messinger, was being given some in-flight refueling practice under the supervision of the aircraft commander, Capt Charles Wendorf. Messinger closed in on the tanker at 260kts, but then increased speed 900ft from the tanker. Advised by the KC-135A’s boomer that he would “have an overrun,” he activated the airbrakes before Wendorf could intervene, making the bomber pitch up and strike the tanker’s underside.

The 33ft long refueling probe, with a 12ft telescopic internal tube operated by MSgt Lloyd G. Potolicchio, penetrated the B-52’s upper fuselage/wing joint causing an explosion and fatal damage to a longeron (spine), probably injuring the gunner and EWO and separating the left wing. Disintegration followed quickly, with the forward fuselage falling away. The fireball was seen by Troubadour 12’s boom operator and the tanker crew returned to see burning wreckage and the B-52’s tail section and wing falling.

When a B-52 pitched up and collided with a KC-135 over Palomares: the story of the most famous Broken Arrow accident

Fire from the B-52 explosion ignited fuel in the KC-135’s refueling boom. It dived to 1,600ft where its fuel tanks with 30,000 gallons of JP-4 exploded and it hit the ground about three miles from the B-52G wreck near Palomares, a fishing village in Spain.

Palomares Broken Arrow accident: the aftermath

The four B28F1 weapons with Mod 3F shock-absorbing nose cones and Mod 0 parachutes were scattered. One landed near the beach, a second impacted a cemetery, and another buried itself in a tomato field. The 100ft wide retarding parachute on the fourth opened and it drifted out to sea.

Two bombs went through the preliminary high-explosive stage of detonation and nuclear debris contaminated 1,400 tons of soil and vegetation with plutonium, all of which had to be excavated and returned to the USA in 6,000 steel barrels for disposal. The fourth B28 landed five miles offshore in 2,500ft of water and was not located until March 15, 80 days later, by a USN submarine. The Navy’s Task Force 65, commanded by RADM William Guest, used two prototype submersibles, the Alvin and Aluminaut and the USS Petrel to hoist the errant bomb to safety on April 7. A piece of recovery gear rented for the operation added another $50,000 a day in rental charges to the enormous $80m cost of the operation and a KC-135A had to be sent specially to take the item back to the USA.

Compensation to the Spanish government and promises to clear up the remaining soil contaminated by 25lb of plutonium in fenced-off areas continued into 2010, while disability compensation claims for US servicemen involved in the incident continued into 2021.

Chrome Dome 1960–68 The B-52s’ high-stakes Cold War nuclear operation is published by Osprey Publishing and is available to order here.

An Omega KDC-10 is the first commercial tanker to refuel USAF B-52, MC-130J over Pacific Ocean
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Photo credit: Adam Tooby via Osprey


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Dario Leone

Dario Leone

Dario Leone is an aviation, defense and military writer. He is the Founder and Editor of “The Aviation Geek Club” one of the world’s most read military aviation blogs. His writing has appeared in The National Interest and other news media. He has reported from Europe and flown Super Puma and Cougar helicopters with the Swiss Air Force.
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