Mark 17 Thermonuclear device dropped near Albuquerque

May 22nd, 1957

Mark 17 Thermonuclear device dropped near Albuquerque

~ 10 megaton bomb nuclear weapon accident.

On Wednesday, May 22, 1957 a 42,000 pound (21 ton) 10 megaton nuclear weapon dropped from a USAF B-36 as it approached Kirtland Air Force Base in Albuquerque, New Mexico.  At the time of this nuclear weapon accident this nuclear bomb was the largest and most destructive weapon of mass destruction ever deployed.

The narrative regarding what happened just before noon on May 22, 1957 south of Albuquerque begins with this (circa 1980) DOD typewritten summary (typographical errors have been corrected):

The DEPARTMENT OF DEFENSE Narrative Summaries of Accidents involving U.S. nuclear weapons – 1950 through 1980  (Source)

May 22, 1957 / B-36 / Kirtland AFB, New Mexico
The aircraft was ferrying a weapon from Biggs AFB, Texas. to Kirtland AFB.  At 11:50 a.m. MST, while approaching Kirtland at an altitude of 1,700 feet, the weapon dropped from the bomb bay taking the bomb bay doors with it.  Weapon parachutes were deployed but apparently did not fully retard the fall because of the low altitude.  The impact point was approximately 4.5 miles south of the Kirtland control tower and .3 miles west of the Sandia Base reservation.  The high explosive material detonated (on impact), completely destroying the weapon and making a crater approximately 25 feet in diameter and 12 feet deep.  Fragments and debris were scattered as far as one mile from the impact point.  The release mechanism locking pin was being removed at the time of release.  (It was standard procedure at that time that the locking pin be removed during takeoff and landing to allow for emergency jettison of the weapon if necessary.)  Recovery and cleanup operations were conducted by Field Command, Armed Forces Special Weapons Project.  Radiological survey of the area disclosed no radioactivity beyond the lip of the crater at which point the level was 0.5 milliroentgens (ICRP definition).  There were no health or safety problems.  Both the weapon and capsule (fissile core) were on board the aircraft but the capsule (fissile core) was not inserted for safety reasons.  A nuclear detonation was not possible.

“The aircraft” was a B-36 J, (serial number 52-2816) one of 260 B-36 giant propeller driven and jet assisted long range bombers made (starting in 1946, ending in 1954) and adapted for use in the United States nuclear delivery arsenal.  It was the only aircraft at the time that could carry the giant megaton class nuclear weapons that the U.S. was creating to obliterate Soviet cities.


The specific aircraft in question was based at Biggs Air Force Base, just northeast of downtown El Paso, Texas (near Fort Bliss), very near to the southern border of New Mexico (just 200 miles, about 30 minutes flight time, from Albuquerque).  The aircraft was assigned to the the 95th Bombardment Wing, then stationed at Biggs as a part of the Curtis Emerson LeMay Strategic Air Command (SAC) intercontinental strike force.

“The weapon” in question was a Mark 17, 10 megaton production hydrogen bomb.  The first bomb of this type was tested in Nevada on March 26, 1954 (Project Romeo).   By April of 1954 the Mark 17 was in production.  The production bomb had a steel casing about 3.5 inches thick, it was 24 feet 8 inches long, 61.4 inches in diameter, and weighed between 41,400 and 42,000 lbs.  The bomb had a destructive capacity greater than 500 times that of the bomb dropped on Hiroshima (20 kilotons – 10 megatons).

By 1957 the weapon (200 Mark 17’s were made) was obsolete.  The new Mark 36 hydrogen bombs, lighter and capable of being carried in both the B-57 and B-52 aircraft, were in full production.  The “old” Mark 17 hydrogen bombs were being delivered to Sandia Base in Albuquerque for storage and eventual dismantling.

The obsolete aircraft carrying the obsolete bomb approached the Kirtland / Albuquerque joint airfield from the northeast(?) (if one is to believe the debris field evidence).   At 11:50 a.m., from the flying platform altitude of 1,700 feet (above ground) the bomb fell from the aircraft, plunged toward the earth and landed near North Latitude 34.993° and West Longitude 106.573° (find the location here).

The impact of the 21 ton bomb falling from a point more than a third of a mile high in the sky caused the non-nuclear “trigger” explosives to detonate.  A blinding flash, a loud explosion and a non-nuclear cloud bore testimony to the destruction, or annihilation, of what once was a “city-busting” hydrogen bomb.

Many articles and web-sites have spent much time naming the officers and enlisted personnel aboard the aircraft and on the ground that day.  They have explained and presented their views, their cases, the reports on “what happened and why”.  None of that matters.  The 1957 incident at Albuquerque is just one of 10,000 incidents and accidents and precedents inherent to the real disaster of the bomb – the US spending of $5.8 trillion on nuclear weapons between the early 1940s and 1996.  There is no other business, no industry, no corporation or syndicate or crime syndicate that has garnered that kind of money (in all those years) and that has caused as much fear and pain and angst and secondary spending as “nukes are U.S., USA Incorporated”.

Had the “Albuquerque bomb” gone off (gone critical) maybe much of the money not yet expended would never have been expended.  Maybe there would have been no Cuban missile crisis, no assassination of Kennedy, no George Bush.  Maybe 50,000 people of the 200,000 area population might have died, but some of the best minds involved in weapons development, packaging, procurement and promotion would have died that day too.  Maybe the world would have been better.

Sandia Labs, Sandia Base, Kirtland still exist.  The site of the nuclear accident is now an area projected to become a future city – Mesa Del Sol, table of the sun, “snake hill” to those who have seen the snakes and driven there.  You can’t say that you were never warned.  The nuclear warhead modification and testing continue.  The storage of bombs and H-bombs and weapons of mass destruction is now an industry, a mission, even a crusade; presidents come to marvel.

So yes, I do live under the gun.  I live in the shadow (five or six miles away) of enough nuclear weapons to kill perhaps a billion or a half-billion people on this earth.  Albuquerque, let me introduce you, you might remember the name.

They say that it IS just a game, that nuclear weapons are under control, that mutual assured destruction means no destruction, that government welfare for potential mass-murderers is (if not right) is de rigueur.  I disagree.  I would rather see a new Albuquerque, one without the nukes, nuclear stockpiles, nuclear spending, nuclear accidents.

2013.01.13 – 05:29.