Maj. Alfred D’Amario thought the worst was over after his violent ejection from the dark, smoky cockpit of his Boeing B-52G Stratofortress, call sign Hobo 28, over northwestern Greenland.
The pilot and six crewmen from the 380th Strategic Bombardment Wing out of Plattsburgh Air Force Base, New York, were flying a secret “Hard Head” mission, maintaining constant visual contact with Thule Air Base and its Ballistic Missile Early Warning System, which would sound the first alert if the Soviet Union launched its ICBMs. If the communication link between the base and North American Aerospace Defense Command were severed, the aircrew would determine whether the facility had been hit by the Soviets or experienced a benign technical failure.
The Hard Head missions were part of a larger Cold War effort known as Operation Chrome Dome. Established in 1958 by Gen. Thomas S. Power, the head of U.S. Air Force Strategic Air Command, constantly airborne Stratofortresses armed with thermonuclear weapons guaranteed an immediate response if a Soviet first strike knocked out SAC airfields.
Hobo 28, armed with four hydrogen bombs, flew in a “butter knife” holding pattern, similar to a figure 8, at 35,000 feet near Thule. The crew had all the mission planning documents they required to strike the Soviet Union if needed.
As D’Amario watched the bomber he had abandoned diving in flames toward ice-covered Bylot Sound, just west of the air base, he knew the one-point safe bombs wouldn’t go “nuclear” in the crash.
As he descended, the major sighted an orange fireball eight miles to the west. Suddenly, an intensely bright white light outshone the orange jet fuel blaze as the conventional high explosives in the four bombs detonated from the shock of impact. A supersonic blast wave tore outward in all directions into the subfreezing arctic air.
In several seconds, D’Amario’s easy downward drift was interrupted. As he recounted in his book “Hangar Flying”: “I watched it [the bright light] for a few seconds and, suddenly, all hell broke loose. My parachute and the life raft both took off to my right, leaving me what looked like 10 or 15 feet to the left of them. Then, I started swinging back and forth between them.”
D’Amario and five of his fellow crewmen made it safely to the ground, but the co-pilot, Capt. Leonard Svitenkoit, did not.
The crash on Jan. 21, 1968, marked one of U.S. Air Force Strategic Air Command’s worst “Broken Arrow” nuclear incidents of the Cold War.
The United States and Denmark launched an intensive clean-up and recovery operation. which was even more difficult than a similar clean-up effort at Palomares, Spain, two years earlier. As a result of these two nuclear accidents, Operation Chrome Dome was ended.
Read the dramatic full story of Hobo 28 at our sister publication, Aviation History magazine.