The Palomares incident was one of 32 nuclear accidents involving U.S. nuclear weapons between 1950 and 1980. But, states the author, in the long term it led to a positive outcome -- safety, security, and control -- a design philosophy that has since been incorporated into the U.S. nuclear stockpile.
America's Lost H-Bomb! details the Palomares accident and provides an excellent background history of the others in the Appendix.
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Randall C. Maydew, of Albuquerque, New Mexico, was a key player in the H-bomb recovery at Palomares. He chaired the Atomic Energy Commission/USAF Systems Analysis Team for Major General D. E. Wilson, Commander of the 16th Air Force, which aided in locating the B28 thermonuclear bomb.
In 1944-1945, during World War II, Maydew flew 30 missions from Saipan to Japan, with the 21st Bomber Command, as an Army Air Forces B-29 Superfortress navigator. In 1948, he received a B.S. and in 1949 and M.S. in aeronautical engineering from the University of Colorado. From 1949 to 1952 he worked for the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA, now NASA) in Mountain View, California, and from 1952 to 1991 for Sandia National Laboratories, Albuquerque, New Mexico. He was Chief of Aerodynamics at Sandia Corporation, which designed the arming, safing, fusing, and firing systems for nuclear warheads.
Maydew retired from his engineering career in 1991. He is an Associate Fellow of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics and a Trustee of the National Atomic Museum Foundation and has been an editor of the Museum's publications.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
From Prologue: It was Saturday, 22 January 1966.
Alan Pope, Director of Aero Projects at Sandia Corporation, Albuquerque, New Mexico, received an urgent telephone call from the Pentagon. W. J. "Jack" Howard, Assistant to the Secretary of Defense for Atomic Energy, asked Alan if he had seen Thunderball, the macho James Bond movie about a missing nuclear bomb.
Alan had, and Jack responded, "Good, because we need your help to locate one that's been missing since the 17th! A B-52G Stratofortress and a KC-135A Stratotanker collided in mid-air over Palomares, Spain." . . .
The missing nuclear warhead at Palomares had been designed by the Los Alamos national laboratory. And Jack Howard was knowledgeable about nuclear weapons because for nearly two decades he had both designed and supervised design for Department of Defense weapon systems. He also knew -- having worked with Alan Pope at Sandia for some 15 years -- that Alan's staff had helped design the complicated parachute system for the missing B28 bomb and could calculate trajectories of descent.
Alan called me at home within a few minutes of the Pentagon call. At the time, I was manager of the Aerodynamics Department at Sandia (1965-1988), responsible for directing a staff of 90 engineers and scientists in the aerodynamic design of nuclear bombs, shells, and missile warheads, as well as parachutes and rockets, for the AEC. Alan and I quickly put together a team to make trajectory calculations, using Sandia's state-of-the-art IBM 7090 computer.
We had already been following the Palomares accident closely since the 20th and knew that three of the bombs carried by the B-52G had been found immediately on the Spanish shore by the Strategic Air Command's 16th Air Force. The 16th, with headquarters at Torrejon Air Force Base near Madrid, was in charge of all SAC operations in Europe.
But the missing fourth nuclear bomb might have fallen into the ocean. Jack asked us to call him back if we thought there was a good probability that it had drifted out to sea. . . .
Little did anyone know it would take 80 days before the elusive weapon was found, at a cost of $50 to $80 million and much adverse international publicity for the U.S. But the missing bomb also resulted in a safer design philosophy regarding nuclear weapons, a philosophy that has continued to benefit the nuclear community and the world to this day.
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