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Albuquerque, Ground Zero

January 16, 2010

May 27, 1957. N34.99°, W106.57°.  A lone steer was grazing this windswept expanse of mesa five miles south of the Albuquerque airport under the noonday sun.  Overhead, a B-36 “Peacemaker” churned toward the runway, ferrying a Mark 17 nuclear bomb from El Paso to Kirtland Air Force Base for service.  Such routine Cold War traffic would not normally be sufficient to jar the animal from his bucolic reverie.  But on this day, owing to a freak accident (the cause of which officially remains unknown), our bovine was about to receive airmail of a highly disruptive nature.

The 42,000-pound two-stage H-bomb–historically the largest nuclear weapon in the American arsenal–was dropped by mistake as the B-36 descended through 1700 feet.  Though the plutonium pit was not on board for safety reasons, the bomb did contain its fissile second-stage “spark plug” made from either plutonium or enriched uranium, as well as the tamper (probably uranium).  It plunged nose-first into the cow-populated mesa, whereupon the shock wave from 300 pounds of detonating high explosive puréed the unfortunately-situated ruminant with inconceivable violence†.  Thunder pealed off the distant hills; Burqueños gaped in awe at the fireball rising in the southern sky.

The acrid fog of charred cow pulp had barely settled when the crack AFSWP (Armed Forces Special Weapons Project) team from Kirtland arrived to discreetly liquidate the consequences of the “broken arrow.” They encountered a 25-foot crater with gamma exposure readings of 0.5 mR / hr at the rim.  Although the Army filled in the crater and recovered most of the weapon, to make a clean sweep of the several square miles peppered with debris would have been a Herculean task.  They did a job that was good enough for government work–in other words, plenty of radioactive H-bomb components still litter the desert for the interested public to collect.  That’s the good news, and I’ll discuss my collection of bomb chunks shortly.

There’s some bad news, however. The inexorable tide of urban sprawl has engulfed just about anything resembling a “windswept expanse of mesa” in the Albuquerque vicinity, and such is the imminent fate of this one.  Forest City Covington NM, LLC has begun marketing the land as a master-planned development called “Mesa del Sol.”  Now it would be a crying shame if this unique venue for radioactive  material collectors got overrun by banal New-Urbanist homes, schools, and shoppes.  Let me make a plea to you, dear reader: If you respect the history of this place, and believe that the wonderful actinide-laden goodies in the topsoil ought to remain accessible to the collecting public rather than gumming up lawnmowers in the front yards of yuppie-stuffed townehomes, please send your thoughts to the developers by clicking here.

†Note: some creative license has been taken with this description of cow’s demise

Links to further historical information:

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Collecting nuclear weapon parts is fun and suitable for the whole family.  Both radioactive and non-radioactive components of the Mark 17 bomb may be obtained on the site (which is publicly accessible on dirt roads with a high-clearance vehicle, or by passenger car with some caution).  I am greatly indebted to Taylor Wilson for bringing my attention to this location.  He has a very nice summary of his findings at his website.  The mesa is devoid of large vegetation, so prepare for wind and weather.  Bring water.  Do not enter the Sandia shooting range to the north of the  bomb site, or approach the Sandia fenceline on the east.   Activity is almost entirely alpha and beta radiation; charged-particle spectroscopy is pending to identify the nuclides responsible.  A pancake Geiger counter is my preferred field instrument.  Shown here is a 15-pound sheet of lead with a surface reading of about 1300 cpm.

Example components of the bomb (click thumbnail for numbered image), relative to calipers set at 2 inches for scale.  Some pieces have identifiable function, others are more mysterious.  Details about the Mark 17 construction remain classified.  Any readers with a better technical eye for these components please feel free to correct my guesswork in the comments, and I will update the list accordingly:

  1. Laminated cork composite from bomb liner.  Cork is very abundant, but never radioactive.
  2. White solid plastic resembling polyethylene, perhaps from interstage.  Most shows signs of melting and charring.  Frequently radioactive.
  3. Black plastic or composite.  Brittle, unlike #2 material.  Never radioactive.
  4. Aluminum casing components, still retaining the greenish-yellow exterior paint.  Never radioactive.
  5. Part of a wiring harness, containing remnants of wires.  Only example found.  Not radioactive.
  6. Fabric sheath / strap material.  Only example found.  Radioactive.
  7. Gear (not radioactive).
  8. Aluminum sheet (no exterior paint).  Not radioactive.
  9. Steel.  Rarely radioactive.
  10. Lead metal, probably from the bomb’s radiation reflector.  Sometimes radioactive.

My spiciest findings are shown at left.  The most radioactive is a small piece of lead, one surface of which registers 13,000 CPM on a 2″ pancake Geiger counter.  The most radioactive plastic piece registers about 7,000 CPM, apparently due to a small embedded object.

My heaviest finding is a contorted piece of lead tipping the scales at almost 30 pounds.  (Sadly, the behemoth is not radioactive.)

8 comments

  1. Carl,

    Having worked on Navy aircraft in the early 60’s I’d say the greenish-yellow parts are from the inside of an aircraft fuselage. Maybe parts of the bomb-bay doors? Or maybe from some other aircraft incident?

    Regards,
    Jon


    • Hi Jon! Thanks for your observation. Was it customary to paint the inside a different color from the exterior, and the “ordnance” a different color from aircraft parts? I have no good color reference for a Mark 17 in 1957, or for the aircraft for that matter. Parts of the bomb bay doors also plunged to the surface. Could indeed be that is what those painted parts are.


  2. Hi Carl,

    I don’t know about the Air Force planes (or was it Army-Air Force at that time?) but the Navy aircraft (Douglas A3D bombers http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/A-3_Skywarrior ) I worked on were whitish-gray on the outside and that greenish-yellow color on the inside. (The greenish-yellow was zinc-chromate spray paint, used for corrosion protection). As I recall, the ordnance was painted whitish-gray also, with red accents outlining critical areas.

    Another thought… I would think it’s highly possible that the area where the Mk-17 unceremoniously landed, being close to the end of a military runway, could also be littered with remnants of other crashed aircraft.


  3. With the exception of the segment of a spoiler band (one of five rings found on the exterior of the weapon casing), the aluminum fragments pictured are from the interior of the weapon. They may be from the parachute cannister or some of the internal support structure for various components.

    The Mk.17 was painted overall dark green. The best example I have seen with original paint is in the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force in Dayton, Ohio. Ballistic test articles were painted white, or in a black & white checkerboard pattern.

    Any parts of the bomb bay doors from the Convair B-36 would be scattered some distance away, back along the flight path. Further to the northwest, I have found pieces of a Douglas B-26 but I have not conducted any research on it yet.


    • Hi Peter,

      Thanks very much for chiming in. You’re the expert on this stuff and I’m sure you have found some amazing objects in your ventures. -Carl


  4. If it is federal or state land you are collecting these bits on, it is illegal per ARPA – Archaeological Resources Protection Act protects sites of a historic (50+ years old) nature on federal land. Man-made artifacts 50 years old and older are protected from collecting with pretty serious penalties.
    Just be aware.


    • Quoting from “ARPA,” 16 USC 470bb: “No item shall be treated as an archaeological resource under regulations under this paragraph unless such item is at least 100 years of age.” Is that what you’re talking about? Unless you start using your real name and otherwise take the time of day to be responsible for your accusation that I’m breaking the law, I’m going to chalk you up as another anonymous amateur lawyer offering pseudo-expertise off the cuff. More typically I get email accusing me of various (imagined) transgressions of 10 CFR, and I have had to spend money on lawyers to deal with some particularly persistent people. So: credible citations and your real name, or GTFO.


  5. What is an interesting fact of history that most people don’t know?

    Radioactivity was present in the crater. With a metal detector pieces of the bomb, some still radioactive, can still be found today. Source:https://carlwillis.wordpress.com/2010/01/16/albuquerque-ground-zero/ Radioactivity without a nuclear explosion is…



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