(KTXL) — The Sacramento region has a rich history of United States Air Force aviation, but on a Tuesday in 1961 that history turned dark as an aircraft armed with nuclear bombs crashed in Sutter County.
Following World War II the United States Air Force was looking to add a modern bomber to its fleet and in 1955 the B-52 Stratofortress began its military service.
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Between 1960 and 1968, the USAF would run Operation Chrome Dome, which would have B-52’s armed with nuclear weapons remain continuously airborne on the border of the Soviet Union.
On March 14, 1961, a B-52F-70-BW armed with two nuclear weapons departed Mather Air Force Base, now Mather Airport, when the cabin pressure in the crew compartment began to fail, according to Department of Defense records.
The crew dropped the plane to 10,000 feet but the increased fuel consumption caused “fuel exhaustion” before an air tanker could refuel the B-52.
The crew bailed out at 10,000 feet, but the commander stayed until 4,000 feet in order for the massive bomber to be steered away from a populated area.
The bomber crashed into Sutter County farmland near the intersection of Moroni Road and Drexler Road, about 17.5 miles southwest of Yuba City.
When the bomber crashed, the two nuclear weapons it was carrying were stripped away from the body of the plane, but their explosives did not detonate. No nuclear contamination was detected either.
This recounting of events by the Department of Defense was challenged years later in a 2013 book written by Retired USAF Lt Col Earl McGill, a B-47 and B-52 pilot during the Cold War.
His book “Jet Age Man: SAC B-47 and B-52 Operations in the Early Cold War” recounts the Strategic Air Commands (SAC) Operation Chrome Dome and the events of March 14, 1961.
“Whatever the cause, SAC crews were briefed on every B-52 accident….we were summoned to the alert shack briefing room where we were told that a B-52 returning from a 24-hour CHROME DOME mission ran out of fuel and dumped four Mk-28’s on Northern California,” McGill writes.
McGill’s recounting of the crash also puts into question how safe the nuclear weapons actually were when the plane went down.
“The safety devices barely worked as designed,” McGill writes. “Apparently three weapons chutes did not fully deploy, which prevented detonation. The one that hung up (in a tree), we were briefed, had ‘rung in’, a term we used to indicate ‘armed’….”
McGill’s book was Nominated as Best Military History Book 2013 by Air Power History, published by the US Air Force Historical Foundation.
Northern California was not the only area of the United States or the world that saw crash landings by B-52’s armed with nuclear bombs.
Operation Chrome Dome would come to an end in 1968 after five B-52 crashes in the United States and abroad.