Sunday, February 5, 2012

Prince of Tides

Fifty eight years ago today, at 2am on February 5th 1958, a F-86 transonic sabrejet crashed off the coast of Georgia following a mid-air collision.  The pilot ejected safely, and was recovered without incident.  The plane went down near Tybee Island, which is near the mouth of the Savannah River downstream from the Savannah River nuclear power plant. 

Two years earlier, in 1956, reactor C of the Savannah River plant would be the fourth reactor to go critical.  The plant was originally designed to make material for nuclear bombs. 

I can find no information as to whether any Savannah River nuclear material was on the Mark 15 nuclear device with serial number 47782.  That 12 foot long hydrogen bomb was on the B-47 stratojet the ill-fated sabrejet had collided with. 

The B-47 did not crash after the mid air collision.   Col. Howard Richardson bravely fought the controls until he safely landed the Homestead-based bomber at Hunter AFB near Savannah.  Richardson would be awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for his actions.  Unfortunately he dropped the bomb while saving his crew.

The model 1 Mark-15 nuclear device was called the “Zombie” device, and officially yielded 1.7(ish) megatons of explosive power.  The later models (which the Tybee device most certainly was) yielded closer to four megatons.  The Mark-15s all weighed about 7,600 pounds (3,450 kg), and were huge (they were almost a 3X12 foot cylinder).  Putting one into any airplane, even the gigantic stratojet, seriously affected how the plane flew.  The Tybee device was in the B-47 just to make the plane difficult to fly and give the crew experience flying with so much weight.  After the collision the air force began using lead weighted dummies for flight-training purposes.

The Georgia coastline is muddy.  If you drop an almost four-ton rock into the mud from way up in the air, while distracted by the likelihood of dying in a fiery crash, it can be hard to find.  So far the Tybee device has avoided all efforts to find it. 

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