The Brunswick News
BRUNSWICK, Ga. — On a winter night nearly 55 years ago, the pilot of a B-47 bomber carrying a nuclear bomb collided with a F-86 fighter jet at 36,000 feet during a training exercise.
The accident tore a wing from the fighter jet, forcing the pilot and a crew member to safely eject. The bomber sustained damage to one of its engines, making it uncertain if it could safely land at Hunter Air Force Base, west of Savannah.
The pilot was instructed to jettison the nuclear bomb before attempting to land, so he dropped the weapon into the shallow waters off the Georgia coast, near Tybee Island, on Feb. 5, 1958.
Despite a search that lasted more than a month, the bomb, 11 feet long and 3 feet in diameter and weighing more than 7,000 pounds, was never recovered. The Air Force determined it was “irretrievably lost.”
In 1998, retired Air Force Col. Derek Duke helped renew interest in finding the bomb. He helped form a salvage company to mount another search in 2004, but he never found the weapon.
“It was determined since we could not find it, it would still be considered irretrievably lost,” he said Tuesday.
But Duke, who lives in Statesboro, about 75 miles from where the bomb was ditched, is convinced that if the federal government conducted another search, using the newest technology, the bomb would be found. And he believes it is simply a matter of convincing the right government officials that finding the weapon is long overdue.
“If it would have been dropped in the Potomac River, it would have been found a long time ago,” he said. “There’s a lot of weapons-grade nuclear material (in the bomb). When this was lost, all the nuclear material was written off the books.”
At the time of the accident, Duke said it was standard practice for nuclear weapons to be carried during Air Force training exercises.
“Our bomber force was the first line of defense in a nuclear war,” he said. “It was the politics, the atmosphere at the time.”
Duke says he still gets calls and emails asking about the bomb at least once a month, so he knows it’s still a concern.
“It’s a question about what risk is there,” he said. “I have to be careful, because I don’t want to alarm the public.”
But according to Jerry Brandon, a former staff member at Sandia National Laboratories, an engineering and science laboratory in New Mexico under contract to the U.S. Department of Energy, the public should not be concerned about the bomb exploding.
“The worst thing that would happen is, it would leak plutonium,” he said.
Brandon, who has a post-doctorate degree in physics, worked at the lab from 1972 through 1979, trying to find uses for radioactive material left over from making nuclear bombs.
He says it would “be a good idea to find it,” because of the radioactive material. But Brandon, who lives in St. Marys, doubts if the radioactive material will ever be found if the corrosive salt water has dissolved the metal exterior of the bomb.
Clark Alexander, professor of geology at Skidaway Institute of Oceanography, a University System of Georgia research institute on Skidaway, says it is likely the bomb is buried 20 to 30 feet deep in sediment.
Despite the radioactive material and an estimated 400 pounds of TNT in the bomb that is becoming more unstable as time passes, Alexander says the best course of action is to leave the weapon where it lays. He has no concerns about adverse impacts to the environment.
If the bomb is buried deep in sand, Alexander says it is likely the bomb casing has already corroded and has leaked nuclear material. It is also likely a nuclear leak won’t be noticed because of strong tides flushing the material to sea.
“If it’s in the sediment, it’s relatively well-flushed,” he said. “It would have no effect, whatsoever.”
Duke concedes it is possible the bomb will never be found unless a targeted new search is conducted or a powerful hurricane uncovers it from its resting place. But it’s not impossible.
“They find things all the time from World War II in Europe,” he said. “It’s literally anyone’s guess where it is. It touches a lot of history.”