By Tim Bean
Broken arrow—an unexpected event involving nuclear weapons that result in the accidental launching, firing, detonating, theft or loss of the weapon
Since 1945, the US has had 32 official “broken arrow” incidents: one occurred in 1964 at the Bunker Hill Air Force Base, (later renamed the Grissom Air Reserve Base) about 12 miles north of Kokomo, Indiana.
The Bunker Hill B-58 Hustlers were as fast and furious as any bombers the US military would ever produce. Stretching nearly one hundred feet in length, the Hustler’s delta wing, Space Age design ripped through Mach 2 at a dead run, all while carrying a payload of four 70-kiloton nuclear bombs and one 9-megaton bomb.
Its fuselage gleamed like a polished blade, and its sonic boom rattled windowpanes for miles. It was the world’s first supersonic bomber, flying at the cusp of American military technology, and Bunker Hill pilots were hoinored to have them; they were one of only two B-58 squadrons in the US.
“It was like God in heaven,” said a former B-58 pilot.
Although nuclear nerves were at their twitchiest in the early 1960s, Hustler pilots loved every minute of it. High alert meant they frequently took the B-58 on training patrols and missions, and when they hit Lake Michigan, they were allowed to go “full afterburner” or literally hose fuel into their superheated exhaust, turning the jet into a combination jet-rocket. Over the cold waters of Lake Michigan, the B-58 soared at Mach 2.3, over 1,700 mph.
Until the Bunker Hill “broken arrow” incident of 1964.
During a training exercise in December of 1964, a B-58 and its three-man crew rolled slowly down an icy runaway at Bunker Hill, waiting to throttle up and take off. Large patches of ice covered the runway, causing the Hustler to skid and shimmer. The experienced pilot maintained control; exercises did not get called off on account of conditions, because high alert meant high alert—like nuclear war, it could come at any time.
When a B-58 ahead of them throttled up, the jet wash smacked the wobbling Hustler’s nose, pushing it to the side of the runway. Under the sudden sheer strain of weight, the landing gear bent and then snapped, and the entire plane came down on the combination thermonuclear bomb/fuel pod.
Because of its high alert status, the B-58 always stayed fully-fueled. 14,000 gallons of blended gasoline and kerosene instantly ignited beneath the Hustler. The plane, its crew, and five nuclear weapons were suddenly bathed in flames on the icy Bunker Hill runway.
The Hustler seated three—the pilot, the navigator, and the bombardier. As the flames erupted around the plane, the pilot and bombardier escaped before the flames had a chance to box them in. They rolled off the fuselage to the cold tarmac and limped away, expecting to see the navigator right behind them. They did not.
Captain Manuel “Rocky” Cervantes Jr., a 29-year-old flyer from Dallas, sat in the Hustler’s open canopy, staring at the flames that were beginning to intensify. The heat crawled up toward him. It was a situation all Hustler pilots had talked about before. The plane’s three-seat design made a quick egress for the navigator almost impossible. There was only one option left, and the option was suicidal.
The Hustler’s ejection seat would rocket crew safely away from an exploding or falling aircraft. Sitting on the hard ground, the ejection seat would rocket Cervantes a hundred feet in the air, but he would hit the tarmac before his chute had a chance to fire. A one-hundred foot dead drop.
It was a scenario the crew had discussed beforehand. In such a situation, the quick death of ejection was better than burning. Anything was better than that.
Captain Cervantes didn’t waste another second. He slammed the canopy shut, strapped himself in, and ejected. The canopy flew up and he rose in a ballistic arc into the sky, trailed by a cloud of smoke. As predicted, the chute didn’t fire and Cervantes slammed onto the tarmac, dying of a crushed aorta in moments.
Tragedy mounted. The airmen of Bunker Hill had another problem. The B-58 Hustler was now a cauldron of flames and melting metal, sitting on top of five nuclear weapons. Fire crews came out but there little they could do but wait for the fire to burn itself out. It lasted twelve hours and, by the end, the crew’s Geiger counters clicked and clacked like marching ants. Radiation.
By 1964, the US military’s had gained substantial experience with nuclear cleanup. Procedures were well-established. Wearing heavy protective gear, they fished out the remains of the fissile material, packaged them securely and shipped them to the Atomic Energy Commission for study and, likely, reuse; weapons-grade plutonium couldn’t be wasted.
Crews collected the tons of twisted metal and hauled it off to a lonely, wooded corner of the base, buried it, and then surrounded the radioactive grave with three acres of fencing and warning signs. Base orders came down that no one, not a security guard, an airman, an MP or even the President of the United States, could cross the fence of that “Controlled Area.”
The grave and surrounded dead zone remained untouched for decades, until construction crews cleaning up parcels of the base unearthed the rusted metal bones of the Hustler (its radiation was now minimal).
The US military cycled out the Hustlers in 1970, and only eight remain today, all museum pieces. One sits in front of Grissom Air Force Reserve Base, formerly the Bunker Hill Air Base, a one-hundred foot monument to those who served and sacrificed in the B-58s.
The chief question: why have most Hoosiers never heard of this before? Was it an elaborate coverup by the government?
The incident appeared in both national and regional papers, but it’s important to remember this was 1964. Incidents involving these nightmarish weapons frequently filled the front page. The Bunker Hill Broken Arrow Accident resulted in minimal radiation contamination and no loss of personnel. The death of Captain Cervantes, while tragic, would have occurred regardless of the Hustler’s nuclear payload.
Like many nuclear accidents, it was an incident that could have been much worse, but wasn’t, due more to fortune than foresight.