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When The Air Force Declared Nuclear War On Nevada

Boeing B-50. Official US Air Force photograph

The training film “Target Nevada” was produced by the United States Air Force (USAF) Air Photographic and Charting Service along with the Lookout Mountain Laboratory in Hollywood. The film depicts the USAF’s role in the Atomic Energy Commission’s Continental Test Program at the Nevada Test Site during the early 1950s. The film was uploaded to YouTube by atomcentral.

On January 27th 1951, a Boeing B-50D Superfortress based out of Kirtland Air Force Base (AFB) in New Mexico released Ranger Able from approximately 20,000 feet above Frenchman Flat. The weapon detonated at about 1,000 feet altitude. Ranger Able’s nominal yield was one kiloton, which was the smallest yield produced by any nuclear detonation thus far.

Boeing B-29. Official US Air Force photograph

Over the forty years that followed, the AEC and the USAF used the Nevada Test Site for 1,021 of the 1,149 “test shots” detonated by the United States during the Cold War. Air Force aircraft involved in the testing and support activities shown in the film include Boeing B-29 Superfortress particle sniffers, B-50 Superfortress delivery bombers, and B-47 Stratojet bombers, Convair B-36 Peacemaker bombers, North American B-45 Tornado bombers, Republic F-84 Thunderjet and North American F-86 Sabre fighters, Douglas C-47 Skytrain particle sniffer and C-54 Skymaster transports, and even some very rare (13 total) YH-12B helicopters built by Bell.

North American B-45 Tornado. Official US Air Force photograph

The film also shows some of the aircraft used to measure the effects of the blast on aircraft located in the blast and heat zones. It’s a bit hard to watch if you’re a warbird lover, because Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress and B-29 and B-45 bombers, Republic P-47 Thunderbolt and F-86 fighters, and one of the only two Lockheed XF-90 prototype jet fighters ever built are seated too close to the detonations for comfort. Or survival, although the XF-90 that appeared in the film (46-0688), though badly damaged, is now at the National Museum of the United States Air Force in Dayton.

Lockheed XF-90. Official US Air Force photograph

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Bill Walton

Written by Bill Walton

Bill Walton is a life-long aviation enthusiast and expert in aircraft recognition. As a teenager Bill helped his engineer father build an award-winning T-18 homebuilt airplane in their Wisconsin basement. Bill is a freelance writer, an avid sailor, engineer, announcer, husband, father, uncle, mentor, coach, and Navy veteran. Bill lives north of Houston TX with his wife and son under the approach path to KDWH runway 17R, which means they get to look up at a lot of airplanes. A very good thing.

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