Resident Spotlight: Broken Arrow

When Lt. Ray Whitfield went out on a training mission in February of 1950, he had no idea he would become part of history. The 25-year-old West Point graduate was sent to Alaska to take part in a training mission as part of the Cold War. When the mission went wrong, Whitfield and the crew had to act fast to save lives.

The crew of the B-36 bomber was part of the very first full-scale practice nuclear strike against the Soviet Union. When Whitfield’s training run was finished, three of the plane’s six engines caught fire.

“We had an atomic weapon aboard,” Whitfield said. “It was important, before we could be concerned about the airplane or crew, we had to do something about that A bomb.”

Whitfield flew the plane out to sea and they dropped the bomb. “When it went off it lit that cockpit up just like it was daylight,” Whitfield said. “There was no doubt about it, this was 10,000 pounds of TNT.”

The crew bailed out, but not all survived the ensuing crash. Ten of the 17 remaining airmen spent three days shivering on an island in British Columbia before being rescued.

An accidental event involving nuclear weapons, but which does not create the risk of nuclear war is known as a Broken Arrow. The accident with Whitfield’s B-36 became the first Broken Arrow incident.

Whitfield knows he made the right decision by destroying the weapon first. “As I look back, I can’t think of any major decision I ever made that I wouldn’t do over again if I had to make a choice.”