With 3 engines out carrying a load of A-bombs Maj. Nick Firda had a Cold War dilemma

Joris Nieuwint


Don Moores War Tales report:

It was the height of the Cold War in the 1960s. Maj. Nick Firda was flying a secret Strategic Air Command mission in a B-52 bomber loaded with atomic bombs across the Atlantic Ocean to Seymour Johnson Air Force Base in North Carolina when an oil pressure problem caused him to shut his first engine down. It would be the start of a long flight.“We were flying a mission in the Mediterranean area and were on our way back to base in North Carolina when I noticed the oil pressure in one of our engines was low. That was no big deal, because we still had seven other engines to fly on,” said the 74-year-old former Strategic Air Command pilot, who now lives in Englewood, Fla. SAC had recently experienced a calamity in January 1966 when one of its B-52s collided with a refueling tanker over eastern Spain. The bomber broke up and three of its four unexploded nuclear bombs landed near the village of Palomares. The forth bomb was fished from the depths of the Mediterranean Sea. Several of the B-52 crewmen who did not escape the collision alive had flown as part of Firda’s crew before the disaster. Within an hour, a second engine went out on Firda’s bomber his return to the U.S.

When they were still 800 miles from base, a third engine had to be shut down because of mechanical problems. “This was the only time during my years of service in SAC something like this happened to me,” Firda said. “We could still make it with three engines down. “We had code words to let our controllers on the ground know our B-52, that was full of atomic bombs, was having mechanical trouble. I think it was ‘Right Hand Flight,’” Firda said. “We started yelling ‘Right Hand Flight’ over the radio. When they heard the code words, they cleared all the radio frequencies for us,” he said. Their bomber was diverted from Seymour Johnson Air Force Base in North Carolina to Plattsburgh Air Force Base in New York state. It was closer. Firda’s B-52 was carrying four internal atomic bombs in its belly. There were two more GAM-77, jet-powered guided missile atomic bombs mounted on the wings of the big bomber. The combined explosive force of these six A-bombs was many times the destructive power of the two bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the close of World War II. Asked about the mounting pressure on him and his crew because of their wayward bomber’s mechanical problems, Firda said, “The training you get at SAC was exceptional. We were trained to cope with a situation like this. “They cleared the runway for us at Plattsburgh. As we were landing, we also had hydraulic problems, which made it hard for us to steer the airplane on the ground, and we only had limited braking ability,” he said. “We had an emergency hydraulic pump that would momentarily improve our hydraulic problems. We put the emergency pump on at the last moment and that gave us enough hydraulic pressure to steer and stop the plane.”

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