News & Current Affairs

June 22, 2009

Missing for 50 years – US nuclear bomb

Filed under: Latest, Politics News — Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , — expressyoureself @ 1:38 pm

Missing for 50 years – US nuclear bomb

Colonel Howard Richardson

Colonel Howard Richardson ditched the bomb off Tybee Island

More than 50 years after a 7,600lb (3,500kg) nuclear bomb was dropped in US waters following a mid-air military collision, the question of whether the missing weapon still poses a threat remains.

In his own mind, retired 87-year-old Colonel Howard Richardson is a hero responsible for one of the most extraordinary displays of aeronautic skill in the history of the US Air Force.

His view carries a lot of weight and he has a large number of supporters – including the Air Force itself which honoured his feat with a Distinguished Flying Cross.

But to others, he is little short of a villain: the man who 50 years ago dropped a nuclear bomb in US waters, a bomb nobody has been able to find and make safe.

‘Top-secret flight’

Shortly after midnight on 5 February 1958, Howard Richardson was on a top-secret training flight for the US Strategic Air Command.

It was the height of the Cold War and the young Major Richardson’s mission was to practise long-distance flights in his B-47 bomber in case he was ordered to fly from Homestead Air Force Base in Florida to any one of the targets the US had identified in Russia.

Colonel Howard Richardson
We thought maybe it was something from outer space, but it could only be another plane
Colonel Howard Richardson

The training was to be as realistic as possible, so on board was a single massive H-bomb – the nuclear weapon he might one day be instructed to drop to start World War III.

As he cruised at 38,000 feet over North Carolina and Georgia, his plane was hit by another military aircraft, gouging a huge hole in the wing and knocking an engine almost off its mountings, leaving it hanging at a perilous angle.

At his home in Mississippi, Colonel Richardson said: “All of a sudden we felt a heavy jolt and a burst of flame out to the right.

“We didn’t know what it was.

“We thought maybe it was something from outer space, but it could only be another plane.”

The colonel thought his number was up. His bomber started plummeting to earth and he struggled with the flight deck to get any kind of response.

“We had ejection seats – I told ’em: ‘Don’t hit the ejection seats just yet. I’m gonna see if we can fly.'”

As he dropped to 20,000 feet, he somehow got the damaged craft under control and levelled out.

He and his co-pilot then made a fateful decision which probably saved both their lives and the lives of countless people on the ground.

B-47 bomber wing

The B-47’s engine was left hanging from the plane

Colonel Richardson told me that the decision was instantaneous – and he still has no doubt it was the right thing to do.

They would ditch their nuclear payload as soon as possible in order to lighten the aircraft for an emergency landing and also to eliminate the danger of an enormous explosion when they made their unsteady arrival at the nearest available runway.

“The tactical doctrine for Strategic Air Command gave me the authority to get rid of it (the bomb) for the safety of the crew – that was the number one priority,” Colonel Richardson said.

He managed to direct the B-47 a mile or two off the coast of Savannah and opened the bomb doors, dropping the bomb somewhere into the shallow waters and light sand near Tybee Island.

He then managed a perfectly executed descent from which he and his crew walked away unscathed.

The pilot of the other aircraft, an F-86 fighter jet, also survived, after his ejector seat shot him clear of his aircraft.

I’ve been living with it now for 51 years
Colonel Howard Richardson

Immediately after the crash, a search was set up to find the unexploded nuclear weapon, buried somewhere too close for comfort to the US’s second-largest seaport and one of its most beautiful cities.

Numerous other searches have followed, both official and unofficial, and each of them has also proved unsuccessful.

So the bomb remains tucked away on the sea-bed, in an area which is frequently dredged by shrimp fishermen, any one of whom could suddenly find that they have netted something a touch larger and scarier than a crustacean.

How dangerous the bomb is after all these years is a matter of hot debate.

The US Air Force insists it is safest to leave it wherever it is, and Colonel Richardson is adamant that it is incapable of a nuclear explosion because it lacks the vital plutonium trigger.

‘Practice mission’

He said these were routinely left out of the bombs used on training flights.

“This was just a practice mission. We were continually working out any problems, that’s why we had to practise – we wanted to be perfect,” he said.

But his case has been vigorously contested by opponents who raise apocalyptic fears of a thermonuclear explosion which could destroy much of the US eastern seaboard.

Fears have also been expressed that the bomb could be located and recovered by a terrorist group, and are even some who believe that may already have happened.

For Colonel Richardson, the event which shaped his life has not ended quite the way he thought it would.

“I’ve been living with it now for 51 years.

“We had an accident and I landed the aircraft safely… I did get a Distinguished Flying Cross from a general for that.

“I thought that would be the story. That’s not the story – everything’s about the nuclear weapon.”

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June 20, 2009

The value of a hobby

The value of a hobby

Balloons

Exotic hobbies are not always necessary

Perhaps wowing interviewers with your array of hobbies is not all that important after all, muses Laurie Taylor in his weekly column.

“Tell me Janice, why do you want to study sociology?”

I’d already asked five other applicants for an undergraduate place at York the same question that morning so I wasn’t exactly hanging on the answer.

FIND OUT MORE
Laurie Taylor
Hear Laurie Taylor’s Thinking Allowed on Radio 4 at 1600 on Wednesdays or 0030 on Mondays

Just as well really. For although the sixth-former now occupying the interview chair in my office at least looked as though she recognised the question, she still delivered nothing more than the sort of stock reason which had no doubt been recommended by her school careers advisor.

“Well,” she said slowly, “I’ve always been interested in people.”

My fellow interviewer, a grumpy and overweight senior lecturer who’d never shown any interest whatsoever in any other person than himself, signalled his dissatisfaction with a grunt.

But I persisted. “So, Janice what exactly interests you about people?”

The candidate clearly hadn’t been trained to expect a follow-up question. She once more found herself distracted by the tips of her sensible interview shoes.

I tried to help out. “Are you interested in their differences? Or perhaps their similarities?”

Janice looked up with a sudden show of certainty. “Their differences,” she said. “Good,” I said with an encouraging smile. “And what sort of differences?”

I hoped against hope that she’d come up with some sort of answer so that my fellow interviewer would have to credit my line of questioning. But this was clearly a step too far. The silence began to stretch.

Janice looked for all the world as though she’d been suddenly asked to pontificate on the finer points of Kantian epistemology

“Differences in clothes?” I suggested helpfully. “Differences in style? Differences in class?” In court, they’d have called it leading the witness.

“All sorts of differences,” said Janice hopefully. My co-interviewer snorted again.

And even though it was the end of a long morning’s interviewing I was suddenly overcome by the feeling that I must somehow rescue this young woman from her extreme inarticulacy, somehow find a way in which she could, if not sparkle, at least emit a faint glow of comprehension or intelligence.

I quickly scanned her application form. Perhaps there was something here which would give the lie to her present inadequacy. But it was all purely routine.

A list of O-level successes and A-level aspirations and a reference from a headmaster which spoke of Janice as a “moderate to high achiever” who “had not always lived up to her potential but who was now gaining in maturity” and “could be expected to make the most of a university opportunity”. I suspected on the basis of these cliches that even I was already more familiar with Janice than her own headmaster.

Interview

Interviews can be harrowing experiences for many

I flipped over the page. Perhaps there’d be some meat for me to gnaw on in the “Hobbies” section. What did Janice get up to in her spare time? Yes, here it was. Hobbies. And there, in her neat rounded slightly backward sloping hand, Janice had written “Brass Rubbing”.

“Right,” I said, as though I’d been totally satisfied by her analysis of social differences, “let’s move on. I see that your hobby is brass rubbing. What interests you about brass rubbing?”

Janice looked for all the world as though she’d been suddenly asked to pontificate on the finer points of Kantian epistemology. Her face, which had never shown much more than a flicker level of animation throughout the interview, now assumed a total blankness.

I checked the form again. Had I misread her hobby? No, it was as plain as a pike-staff. I tried again. “Where do you do your brass rubbing?”

Bitter confession

Janice shuffled. Was she deciding between a range of cathedral tombs? Not at all. She looked up and I could see tears forming in her eyes.

“I don’t do it anywhere,” she said sadly. And then, almost as though she knew that matters could not get any worse, she poured out her bitter confession.

“I don’t even know what it is. I don’t know what brass rubbing is. But when we were filling in the UCCA form, our teacher said that we all had to have a hobby but when she asked the other girls in the class what their hobbies were no-one, except someone who did cooking at home, had a hobby.

“So the teacher had this list of hobbies like watching birds and collecting stamps and brass rubbing and she gave us one hobby each and I got brass rubbing.”

“So you don’t have a hobby of your own?” I asked gently. Janice was now in her stride. “No. I’ve never had a hobby. My mum and dad always told me I should have a hobby. But I never wanted a hobby. I had too many other things to do to bother with a hobby. You had to do hobbies by yourself. I didn’t want to do that.”

“Why?” I almost whispered. “Because,” Janice was now leaning forward, and even my grumpy co-interviewer was paying attention, “because, because, like I told you. Because I’m interested in people.”

I’m pleased to say Janice now lectures in sociology at a North East university.


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