On January 17, 1966, a B-52 of the Strategic Air Command flying a Cold War mission called Operation Chrome Dome collided with a KC-135 refueling aircraft. The B-52 was carrying four hydrogen bombs. All four of the KC-135 crew members plus three of the seven on the bomber were killed.
Three of the H-bombs landed near the town of Palomares, Spain. Although there was no nuclear explosion, the bombs released plutonium which contaminated 42 acres of land and required an extensive and costly clean-up.
Of even greater concern was the missing fourth bomb. The Air Force speculated that the bomb’s parachute deployed, and it was carried out over the Mediterranean Sea. This was confirmed by a Spanish fisherman by the name of Francisco Simo Orts, later known as “Bomb Paco,” who saw the bomb fall. Bomb Paco was hired by the Air Force to help in the search.
My Navy squadron was nearing the end of its six-month deployment in Rota, Spain at the time. The Navy staged a massive sea hunt. Also hoping to find the bomb was the Soviet Union. Our deployment was immediately extended and we began flying around-the-clock patrols circling the search site keeping Soviet Submarines at bay. On our first patrol over the recovery area, it looked like the U. S. was staging another Normandy invasion. Twenty-seven Navy ships and special deep-water search vehicles (Alvin) covered the sea’s surface. Around the perimeter were additional Soviet Block ships. Our assignment was to search and identify any encroaching Russian submarines.
The search was complicated by the sea bed being part of the Rio Almanzora Canyon on 70-degree slope 2,550 feet deep. The search went on for months. Our squadron was finally relieved by a replacement squadron and we returned to the United States.
On March 17, Alvin located the bomb but when attempting to lift it to the surface dropped it, and it was temporarily lost again. Finally, on April 7 an unmanned torpedo recovery vehicle snagged the bomb and brought it aboard a ship.
In an interesting “Rest of the Story” conclusion, once the bomb was recovered, Simo Orts, “Bomb Paco,” appeared in U.S. Federal Court claiming salvage rights. It’s a customary maritime law that any person identifying the location of a sunken ship that leads to its successful recovery is entitled to a nominal salvage award, usually 1 or 2 percent. The bomb was valued by the Secretary of Defense at $2 billion—each percent of which is, therefore, $20 million. The Air Force settled out of court. Years later, Simo was heard to complain that the Americans had promised him financial compensation and had not kept that promise.
Finders keepers, losers weepers.