There were many stories that made the news headlines over the course of the Cold War. One of them relates to the operation Chrome Dome, a US airborne alert program initiated in 1961. Within the operation’s activities, nuclear-armed Boeing B-52 Stratofortress bombers were flown, over a number of years, to designated points on the Soviet Union’s border. This provided an offensive capability on the side of the US in a case where it was deemed probable that the Soviets were preparing to strike first. The whole operation was an important Cold War nuclear deterrent.
As the need of this operation dropped, in 1966 the United States Secretary of Defence proposed termination of the operation’s program. Ending the operation also meant a saving of up to $125 million. However, a complete end did not happen and four bombers remained on alert each day. These flights were conducted without the knowledge of civilian authorities in the States – until one day in 1968.
The bombers flew secretly as part of the “Hard Head” missions. Reportedly, on 21 January 1968, a B-52 bomber under the callsign “HOBO 28” was assigned to fly over the Thule Air Base, the US Air Force’s northernmost base on the Danish territory of Greenland. Such a mission enabled continual monitoring of the base’s strategically vital Ballistic Missile Early Warning System that provided quick warning of Soviet missile launches.
The crew consisted of five regular crew members counting the craft’s commander, Captain John Haug. Aboard the aircraft, there was also Captain Curtis R. Criss as a substitute navigator, and Major Alfred D’Mario who took the role of a mandatory third pilot. The bomber was also carrying out four hydrogen bombs. The troubles came when a fire started out in the aircraft.
Allegedly, the crew was not feeling too comfortable as temperatures in the plane dropped very low. Major D’Mario had then turned on additional heating, but within the next half hour, the temperatures in the aircraft became extremely hot. At that point, the crew felt the scent of burning rubber, and within minutes a fire was discovered.
All attempts to extinguish the fire in the aircraft had failed. At exactly 15:22 EST, roughly six hours into the mission flight and approximately 90 miles away from the Thule Air Base, the captain declared it an emergency and requested emergency landing at the air base. Very soon after, the plane lost electricity and the cockpit was overwhelmed by dense smoke.
The pilots were unable to read any of the instruments. Executing the emergency landing became impossible and crewmen started to abandon the craft. Six members of the crew managed to escape the burning plane but one of them, co-pilot Leonard Svitenko died in the accident.
The pilotless bomber had continued flying in its final hazardous minutes. Past the air base, it crashed onto dense sea ice in the nearby North Star Bay, at exactly 15:39 EST.
The B28FI model hydrogen bombs it carried, had detonated on impact, but a nuclear explosion was not triggered due to the design of the weapon. However, the detonation still dispersed a huge nuclear payload that contaminated the area with radioactivity.
Jet fuel had continued to burn six hours after the crash, eventually melting the ice sheet and causing the remnants of the craft to sink to the floor of the ocean. Captain Haug and Major D’Mario, who had parachuted safely in the proximity of the Thule air base, had delegated the base crew to embark on an immediate search and rescue operation for the remaining crew members. In the thickness of the Arctic darkness, the three other survivors were found by native dog sled teams, and the rescue was successfully accomplished, mainly thanks to Jens Zingleresen of the Royal Greenland Trade Department.
One of the crew members, Captain Criss, was found six miles away from the base after remaining lost in the unnavigable ice for 21 hours. Although he suffered hypothermia, the captain had survived by wrapping himself in the parachute.
The air crash was not only a huge scandal at the time, but also in the years that followed. The hazardous event was designated a “Broken Arrow”, a term used by the US military to depict an accident involving a nuclear weapon that did not impose a risk of war.
At the same time, it emphasized what a risk the Thule Air Base was for the people of Greenland but also how little was needed for initiating a major international conflict. The Chrome Dome operation was suspended immediately following this disaster.
On another note, the crash caused political scandals in Denmark too, as later reports brought to light that the European country had a nuclear-free zone policy signed at the time of the incident. This meant that stockpiling nuclear weapons on its territory was not allowed in times of peace.
While the public continually questioned the whereabouts this event, workers who were involved in the aftermath clean-up program further campaigned for compensations as many suffered from radiation-related diseases in the years after.