Albuquerque has long had a nuclear legacy. One part of it was the time when a hydrogen bomb was accidentally dropped in Albuquerque. It is no surprise since Kirtland Air Force Base hosted the world’s first assembly plant for the hydrogen bomb. Another nuclear legacy of New Mexico.
On May 22, 1957, a B-36 bomber was flying from Biggs Air Force Base in Texas to Kirtland Air Force Base in Albuquerque, New Mexico, carrying a Mark 17 hydrogen bomb. The plane flew into turbulent air at 1,700 feet as it was. To steady himself, the navigator grabbed a lever on the plane, the lever that released the twenty-one ton bomb. It crashed through its bay doors and landed four and a half miles south of the control tower. The plane, losing twenty-one tons, lurched over a thousand feet in the air. The shocked pilots announced to the control tower that they dropped a nuclear bomb.
The drop caused conventional explosives in the bomb to detonate on impact in an uninhabited area. The weapon parts were not in place so there was, thankfully, no nuclear explosion. It created a crater 12 feet deep and 25 feet wide and killed a cow, but no human fatalities. There was minor radioactive contamination.
The Mark 17 was the first thermonuclear weapon to be carried aboard a plane. It was 24.5 feet long and 5 feet in diameter. It had an estimated yield of 10 megatons, 600 times that of the Hiroshima bomb. It was then the most powerful weapon in the U.S. arsenal.
This story was not known until the Albuquerque Journal did a story on it in 1986 after a Freedom of Information Act request. The old military documents it received mentioned this drop. Some of the details still remain classified, but with the documents and interviews with some of the participants, it recounted both the horror and humor of this moment.
To just think that in my hometown, a hometown for now millions of people, a thermonuclear bomb was literally dropped on it. Kirtland served as the manufacturing site for the first hydrogen weapons, until it was replaced by the Pantex nuclear weapons manufacturing plant in nearby Texas. New Mexico itself has a long military and nuclear legacy, and it still lingers in it. The state is the site of the development of the first nuclear weapon, the first test of this new weapon, and the subsequent development of them in the two nuclear laboratories, Los Alamos and Sandia. It also has its aftereffects. The contamination of Navajo lands and water from uranium mining. Even in Albuquerque there is slight plutonium contamination of the soil from these early nuclear development projects from Kirtland. One major place it still hold this legacy is the storage at Kirtland of thousands of nuclear warheads, which I will explore further.
Bartimus, Tad and Scott McCartney. Trinity’s Children: Living Along America’s Nuclear Highway. Albuquerque, NM. UNM Press. 1991. (Chapter 3: City of Secrets.)
Helms, Harry. “Top Secret Tourism.” 2007. Feral House. Los Angeles. (p. 182).