Two planes collided. The bomber had to jettison its nuclear weapon to save the jet.
On February 5, 1958 a United States Air Force Boeing B-47E Stratojet, 51-2349A, of the 19th Bomb Wing flying out of Homestead AFB, Florida collided at approximately 0200 local time with USAF North American F-86L Sabre, 52-10108 of the 444th Fighter-Interceptor Squadron, Charleston AFB, South Carolina. The two aircraft were flying a simulated combat mission near Sylvania, Georgia. The B-47 had been flying at 38,000 feet (11,582.4 meters) when the collision occurred.
USAF Major Howard Robinson, the pilot of the B-47, lost control of the aircraft after the collision and it lost roughly 18,000 feet (5500 meters) of altitude before control was regained. The bomber sustained heavy damage to its right wing and outboard engine. To ensure the 7,600 pound bomb would not detonate in the event of a crash upon landing, the B-47E jettisoned its unarmed Mark 15, Mod 0 nuclear bomb training weapon casing, No. 47782, from 7,200 feet (2,200 meters) over Wassaw Sound off Tybee Beach, Georgia.
The bomber then recovered safely at Hunter AFB, Georgia with no crew injuries. Lieutenant Clarence Stewart, the F-86L pilot, was forced to eject from his stricken aircraft but parachuted safely back to land in a South Carolina swamp. Due to heavy damage sustained in the collision the B-47 was subsequently scrapped.
Major (later Colonel) Richardson was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for his skill in bringing the heavily damaged B-47 back and landing it without incident.
The B-47 landed and the F-86 pilot survived his parachute landing. Alls well that ends well but the story wasn’t over. The bomb was never recovered!
Beginning the next day, February 6, the Air Force and Navy began an exhaustive search of the entire area for the missing thermonuclear device. They searched Wassaw Sound for more than two months without finding the bomb.
According to the Department of Energy, the device is most likely buried under several feet of bottom silt somewhere under the waters of Wassaw Sound. Studies of radioactivity in the area and aquifiers associated with the region have found no credible evidence of abnormal radioactivity. A fake news website reported (in error) that the device had been found “by Canadian scuba divers on vacation” in 2015.
Reports conflict regarding the presence of the plutonium trigger in the device. The Pentagon states that the plutonium trigger was not installed in the weapon when it was jettisoned. However, in 1966 at Congressional Hearings, testimony was given that the Tybee bomb did have its plutonium trigger installed.
The Tybee bomb- truly a mystery for the 21st century!