Will the US Air Force Sign Lloyd’s Open Form?

Once-classified image of a Mark IV nuclear bomb, a descendant of the WWII "Fat Man" plutonium bomb.

Once-classified image of a Mark IV nuclear bomb, a descendant of the WWII “Fat Man” plutonium bomb. Click to embiggen.

A Canadian diver, Sean Smyrichinsky, was harvesting sea cucumbers off British Columbia when he found something that Mother Nature didn’t put there. When he described it to locals, he got the surprise of his life: they think what he found was an atomic bomb missing since it was jettisoned from a struggling B-36 in 1950.

It’s not confirmed, yet, but the US and Canadian Navies are responding to the site. Quoth the Beeb:

The story of the lost nuke has plagued military historians for more than half a century. In 1950, American B-36 Bomber 075 crashed near British Columbia on its way to Carswell Air Force Base in Texas. The plane was on a secret mission to simulate a nuclear strike and had a real Mark IV nuclear bomb on board to see if it could carry the payload required.

Several hours into its flight, its engines caught fire and the crew had to parachute to safety. Out of a 17-person crew, five didn’t make it.

Map of where the lost nuclear bomb might have landedImage copyrightROYAL AVIATION MUSEUM OF WESTERN CANADA
Image captionPeople have been searching for the lost nuke for years

The American military says the bomb was filled with lead and TNT but no plutonium, so it wasn’t capable of a nuclear explosion. The crew put the plane on autopilot and set it to crash in the middle of the ocean, but three years later, its wreckage was found hundreds of kilometres inland.

Dirk Septer, an aviation historian from British Columbia, says the US government searched the wreckage but couldn’t find the weapon.

“It was a mystery to everyone,” he told the BBC. “It was the height of the Cold War and they were just paranoid that the Russians would get a hold of it.”

Crew members have said they dumped the bomb in the ocean first, fearing what the payload of TNT could do on its own if it were detonated.

Canoe near Haida GwaiiImage copyrightGETTY IMAGES
Image captionThe Haida Gwaii islands are a remote area off the coast of British Columbia

A spokesperson for DND told the BBC the department had conferred with its American counterparts, and that the object the diver found could very well be the bomb. The American military do not believe the bomb is active or a threat to anyone, he said, but Canada is sending military ships to the site to make sure.

Quite a remarkable thing, if this really is found.

So the question becomes, will the USAF sign Lloyd’s Open Form? (That may be out of date, but it’s what shipowners and/or captains used to have to do to promise to pay rescuers/salvors). And what’s the salvage of a nuke worth?

Sources: BBC report, The Telegraph.

15 thoughts on “Will the US Air Force Sign Lloyd’s Open Form?

  1. Loren

    Assuming you can believe reports I read, which i don’t, the “bomb had a lead heart rather than plutonium. The mission was to bomb San Francisco for practice(no comment). 3 of the engines caught on fire but seems the plane still had plenty of legs and could have landed on a field, not that the crew would have known that at the time. On fire and airplane in the same sentence just gets all sorts of attention.
    They also said they set the bomb off (it had the explosives) in mid air so there should not be any casing left.
    Seems like most things in life. Half true, half lies and half just wrong. Take your pick.
    The B36 was a cool plane though. Just really said US Air Force didn’t it?

  2. rc

    “The American military says the bomb was filled with lead and TNT but no plutonium”

    Doesn’t sound like a nuke to me. Maybe it was and they didn’t admit it because a cache of plutonium laying around in open water isn’t something you want to advertise, but I suspect it was a as described, since they didn’t make too much of a fuss about recovering it since then.

  3. John M.

    A crew of 17? Good grief, that’s enough for a full hockey team to play against the Rooskies, complete with two full line changes and an extra goalie!

    -John M.

    1. bloke_from_ohio

      The B-36 is an atrociously huge aircraft. It dwarfs the B-29 and almost makes the B-52 look small. The USAF actually fooled around with strapping a mini fighter inside one of the bomb bays as a “bring your own escort to the bombing run” type set up. For scale, the atomic bombs it was tasked with carrying weighted up to 40,000 lbs. A recon version of the aircraft had a camera that was roughly the size of a car. The recce version was also longer and had a crew of 20.

      They actually put a nuclear reactor inside one. They never converted the plane to run of the power from the reactor, but it did its thing at altitude just fine carried aloft by conventional means. The nuke powered nuclear bomber was scraped due to shielding requirements and the like.

      1. TRX

        A friend’s Dad was one of the engineers who designed the reactor bits that flew in the B-36. He said that shielding the airframe wasn’t nearly as much of a problem as what would happen if the plane crashed or was shot down. As in “shut down an entire air base due to radioactive contamination” when the reactor came apart.

        They called the problem “roll-up”, as in the reactor core leaving the crashed aircraft and bounding down the runway on its own…

        It’s pretty bad when the USAF draws back and says, “Whoa, maybe we’d better re-think this idea…”

  4. Tim, '80s Mech Guy

    Sounds a little suspicious, the B-36 was designed to carry early, read Ginormous, nukes on long missions. But being 1950 maybe it was an early version running straight piston engines descended directly from B-29 engines that were famous for oxygen rich shutdowns. With three on fire and asymmetrical thrust I can see the auto pilot not being able to take it where it was pointed when they bailed.

    Uncle is still hunting for a full fledged device the lost in coastal Ga. Some shrimp boat is going to get a YUGE surprise one day.

    1. LFMayor

      I thought I’d read the initial design was to strike into Europe in the event Great Britain fell. Had a galley onboard, even.

      1. Tim, '80s Mech Guy

        You’re right on that, guess I was a little HUA and engaged mouth before brain. Been some time since I read up on them. Friggin behemoth of an airplane with all the comforts of home. I think the intended payload was in excess of the weight of the Fat Man though, if you were going to take all that plane all that way you needed to carry enough iron bombs to make it worth the trip.

  5. BDFT

    There are at least two books on this subject. Google “Broken Arrow”. Most of the reporting on this has been very shoddy, everyone is acting like its a big mystery but its been well known for years. The B36 apparently was experiencing carb icing in nasty weather and couldn’t maintain altitude. Except that it did, all the way back to the Kispiox range in northern BC where it can be viewed, with a lot of walking, as a Canadian historical site. Most of the crew survived so the USAF knew what happened, they just don’t know why the autopilot took it almost back to Alaska. Secret squirrel types went in to the crash site a year later and blew up/carried off all the top secret goodies. Various parts of the plane can be found in museums around northern BC. For example, the 20mm tail gun and mount is in the museum in Smithers.

  6. Bert

    The Urchin Neutron source was tits up within a couple of years, the Polonium had a very short half life- The electronics and power source for the implosion charge were not going to last long under salt water either.

    The hundreds of pounds of chemical explosives in those lenses are still probably quite dangerous… And the pit. A 1950’s Pu pit could be QUITE an item on the “surplus market”, especially if the plateing was good, dimensions still in spec.

    1. TRX

      I thought of the pit when I saw mention of the bomb still being dangerous. Many later pits use short-lived isotopes and only last a few years. I went looking and found an interesting Wikipedia page just on pits: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pit_(nuclear_weapon) Going by their information, the bomb would have had a plutonium/uranium pit with a useable life of centuries. There was also some stuff there about how the pits were “safed” to prevent them from working. It looks like safing was a big design issue; you wouldn’t want a nuclear oopsie in your own arsenal…

      The original Fat Man used RDX as the explosive charge. Some web searching shows RDX as “slightly soluble” in salt water, so… who knows. If the explosive goes there would be a nuclear reaction even without a functional pit, it would just be of very low efficiency bang; what weaponeers would call a “fizzle.” Still a nasty bang and lots of contaminants you really wouldn’t want to be around.

  7. Aesop

    “The American military says the bomb was filled with lead and TNT but no plutonium, so it wasn’t capable of a nuclear explosion.”

    Calling Major Horsesh*t on that claim.

    First, simply considering the Baghdad Bob/Five O’clock Follies source, but secondly, just advise TPTB that you went ahead and salvaged the device on your own at night, and that you have it under lead shielding in a local barn, and then wait and see what and how many of the minions show up afterwards to claim the prize.

    I’m betting it would look like the Steven Spielberg version of a military raid, and put the Die Hard movies to shame.
    That will settle what’s inside the casing. It isn’t likely to be 60-year-old TNT and lead.
    Nuclear materials don’t transition to lead that fast. ;)

  8. JAFO

    Lloyd’s is still the world’s preeminent insurance and reinsurance market, especially for marine insurance. Lloyd’s Open Form is still very much the standard salvage contract. The days of the captain of the Smit Tak salvage tug asking the master of a vessel in distress whether he will accept LOF before he passes a towing hawser are still with us, although now it’s Smit International and likely to happen by satcom than by megaphone. LOF has been modified over the last century or so, and now includes provisions regarding protection of the environment and the like.

    Removing my wig and gown, (or maybe sou’wester) I remember reading somewhere that when the reactor carrying version of the B-36 was flying there were supposed to be transports carrying paratroopers in the area so that if it crashed they could drop and establish a perimeter to protect people from wandering into the resulting ‘hot’ zone. Or maybe that was just a plan.

Comments are closed.