Broken Arrow: Lost Nuclear Weapons in Canada

Image of Boeing B-52H by Tim Beach courtesy of

Within the U.S. military, the code term for a lost nuclear weapon is “Broken Arrow.” There have been many such incidents, from the dangerous accident in Savannah, Georgia, to the four nuclear weapons lost near Palomares, Spain. But what many people may not know was that the first nuclear weapons were lost in Canada. On February 13, 1950 a U.S. B-36 bomber, Flight 075, traveling from Alaska to Fort Worth Texas, had three engines catch fire, from what was later discovered to be a design flaw. The plane carried a Mark Four nuclear weapon, which was made with uranium but had a core of lead. The captain made the decision to jettison the bomb off the Canadian coast, after setting the weapon to airburst at 3000 feet. The bomb vanished in a conventional explosion, which rained uranium down onto the coast. The pilot then changed course back over land, where 16 crew members bailed out around midnight near Princess Royale Island. The plane itself flew on into the dark using auto-pilot. The bomber ultimately crashed into a mountainside in Northern BC. By this point, Strategic Command knew that they had lost a plane and a nuclear weapon, and the search was on. Twelve of the bomber’s crew were found alive. The bomber itself was only found in 1953 on the slopes of Mount Kologet. To this day, how the plane was found 200 miles from where the crew jumped, at a higher elevation, and in the opposite direction to that set on autopilot, remains a mystery.

      The second Broken Arrow incident took place near Riviere-du-Loup, Quebec on November 10, 1950. At the time, the U.S. had eleven Mark 4 nuclear weapons at Goose Bay, Labrador, and a U.S. B-50 bomber was tasked with returning one to the United States. On the flight it suffered from engine trouble, and -following the standard protocol at the time- the crew dropped the bomb over the St. Lawrence River, having set the weapon to air-burst. They knew that the bomb would detonate, scattering uranium, but that the weapon lacked the plutonium core to cause a nuclear explosion. At four in the afternoon, at roughly 2,500 feet in the air, the bomb disappeared in a conventional explosion. To the best of my knowledge, there were never any public studies of the environmental impact, or any possible impact on cancer rates in Saint Andre-de-Kamouraska. The Canadian government did not acknowledge that the incident had taken place until after the millennium.

These cases were less dangerous than many other nuclear accidents because neither of these bombs had their cores. Unlike what happened in Savannah, no armed nuclear weapon remains within blast distance of a major urban center. Still, few Canadians are likely aware of this aspect of their nuclear history, and the risks that the U.S. air-force took during the Cold War, and the sometimes terrifying legacy of this history.

If you are interested in Canadian mysteries, you might also wish to read my book, Dangerous Spirits: The Windigo in Myth and History. This book examines how the Algonquian traditions regarding this evil spirit evolved through time, until it became a motif in film, literature and boardgames. The print version of the book is available in Canada and the United States on Amazon. Please also check out my podcast recommendations for Halloween, which also discusses some Canadian mysteries.

Shawn Smallman

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