Nuclear Close Calls: When We Said “Almost”

Throughout history, there have been many events that human beings have feared. But human beings are also right, we owe it to our luck that humanity has come this far. Today we are going to talk about perhaps the greatest of all the dangers we have survived. A danger that gives us goosebumps just by saying it. Nuclear war. If you’re ready, fasten your seatbelts and let’s take a journey through the “almost” moments of history.

Suez Canal Crisis (1956)

The Suez Canal was a very strategic point. Taking advantage of this, some countries wanted to increase their dominance over it. But what they didn’t know was that in the upcoming crisis, mankind would be in grave danger. Now, let’s examine what this crisis could lead to.


The Suez Canal was a very important canal for humanity. Before this canal, the great European powers had to go around the south of Africa to reach the Far East and Asia by sea. However, with the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869, this became much easier. Years later, however, an important problem emerged. Egypt was now independent and threatens the Britain’s control over the Suez Canal. The canal was the property of the Egyptian government, but European shareholders, mostly British and French, owned the concessionary company which operated it until July 1956, when President Gamal Abdel Nasser nationalised it—an event which led to the Suez Crisis of October–November 1956.


Britain, France and Israel then launched a major operation against Egypt. The aim was to regain control of the Suez Canal. However, it was unthinkable that America and the Soviet Union would not be involved in such a crisis. Soon after, the head of the Soviet Union, Nikita Khrushchev, threatened to strike Western Europe with nuclear weapons. Then US President Eisenhower warned Khrushchev not to get involved in the war. He then threatened Britain, France and Israel to withdraw from Egypt.


But it was not only here that the brink of a nuclear war was crossed. During the war, the US authorities received many reports. The Turkish Air Force was on alert because unidentified objects were flying over Turkey. In Syria, 100 Soviet MIG-15 fighter jets were spotted in the air. A British fighter jet (Canberra) was shot down. The Soviet navy turned its course towards the Dardanelles. For the United States, all this was the beginning of a nuclear war for the world. But, fortunately, it was only a misunderstanding. The “unidentified objects” flying over Turkey were swans. Reports overestimated the number of MIG-15s and they were a routine air force escort (much smaller than the number reported) for the president of Syria, who was returning from a visit to Moscow. The Canberra bomber was forced down by mechanical problems. The Soviet navy was conducting a routine exercise.

Tanks destroyed in Sinai

New Mexico (1957)

In May 1957, a thermonuclear bomb fell from an airplane and crashed into Mesa del Sol. The hydrogen bomb, a Mark 17 model, was one of the largest and most powerful weapons ever built by the United States. It weighed 19,000 kilograms and had a power equivalent to 15 to 20 megatons of TNT, 1,000 times more powerful than the atomic bombs used in World War II. The bomb fell through the closed bomb bay doors of the aircraft approaching Kirtland at an altitude of 1,700 feet. It was destroyed on impact. The accident spread radioactive fuel material and fragments over a wide area, although precautions taken in advance prevented a chain reaction. The Air Force cleaned up the area, but fragments of the bomb (some still radioactive) can be found in the area.


From a New York Times Report in 1968:

“Nuclear weapons are designed with great care to explode only when deliberately armed and fired. Nevertheless, there is always a possibility that, as a result of accidental circumstances, an explosion will take place inadvertently. Although all conceivable precautions are taken to prevent them, such accidents might occur in areas where weapons are assembled and stored, during the course of loading and transportation on the ground, or when actually in the delivery vehicle, e.g., an airplane or a missile.”

Atomic Energy Commission / Department of Defense
MK-17 Thermonuclear Bomb

North Carolina Nuclear Accident (1961)

Another incident took place near Goldsboro on January 24, 1961. A Boeing B-52 Stratofortress carrying two 3.8 megaton Mark 39 nuclear bombs dropped the nuclear bomb near North Carolina due to a malfunction in the air. After the incident, the crew ejected themselves from the plane and 2 crew members lost their lives.


Before the incident, the B-52 had requested refueling in the air. This was a normal and usual procedure. But during the refueling, the pilot of the tanker plane noticed a fuel leak on the right wing of the B-52. The tanker then immediately informed the aircraft and ground control. Ground advised the aircraft to consume as much fuel as possible before landing. After doing as he was told for a while, the pilot informed ground control that the situation was serious. Ground control then ordered an emergency landing at Seymour Johnson Air Force Base. As the plane approached, the pilots lost control of the plane. It appeared that one entire wing of the airplane had been lost. The pilot in command ordered the crew to abandon the aircraft at an altitude of 9,000 feet (2,700 m). According to the crew, the bombs were still in place when they ejected themselves.

A B-52 Stratofortress

Cuban Missile Crisis (1962)

One of the events that caused the US and the Soviets to fall out, perhaps the biggest one, was the Cuban Missile Crisis. The Cuban Missile Crisis was a nuclear crisis that took place in 1962 between the United States and the Soviet Union during the Cold War. After the US placed Jupiter C-type nuclear missiles in Turkey and Italy, the Soviets threatened the US by placing nuclear missiles in Cuba. The US perceived this as a threat and imposed a naval blockade. Tensions between the two superpowers brought the world to the brink of nuclear war. Yet, diplomacy managed to solve this problem. The US pledged to stop attacks on Cuba, while the Soviets withdrew their missiles from Cuba.

Nuclear Attack

The US military was on DEFCON-3 alert. This was the level at which all air forces were ready to take off within 15 minutes. Moreover, the Strategic Air Command, which has the most nuclear weapons in the US, was at DEFCON-2. This was only one level lower than the nuclear war level. While all this was going on, alarms suddenly went off. An intruder had activated the alarms. The authorities thought it was an attack on the US and immediately went on high alert. Fortunately, it soon became clear that the intruder was a bear. Things calmed down except for one base. The alarms at Volk Field were not meant for an intruder, they were much more serious. To prevent the pilots from possibly launching nuclear strikes on the USSR, the base commander ordered one of his officers to drive a truck to the path of the jets to stop any takeoff.

Submarine Incident

Sixty years ago, on October 1, 1962, during the Cuban Missile Crisis, Soviet Foxtrot-class submarines, armed with nuclear torpedoes, left their base for Cuba. On October 27, the most critical day of the crisis, an incident occurred on the B-59 submarine when Captain Valentin Savitsky thought the war started and almost launched a nuclear attack. Vasily Arkhipov, the submarine brigade’s chief of staff, rejected a potential launch. Arkhipov’s 1997 presentation recounts the events, confirming the tense situation. The Americans were unaware of this dangerous moment. Arkhipov’s intervention averted disaster, highlighting the grave risks associated with nuclear weapons during the Cuban Missile Crisis. The incident, kept secret for years, became a subject of public debate, emphasizing the importance of avoiding nuclear conflict.

A Foxtrot Class Submarine

Palomares B-52 Crash (1966)

America and the Soviet Union had endangered not only their own people but all peoples. Throughout the Cold War, both countries flew nuclear-carrying aircraft over each other’s borders to intimidate each other. The message was clear: We can strike at any moment.


This time the United States wanted to threaten the Soviet Union from the west. A B-52 from Seymour Johnson Air Force Base crossed the Atlantic Ocean and received air-to-air refueling over Spain. The plane then flew over the western border of the Soviet Union before returning back to the United States. However, an unexpected problem occurred on the return trip. The fuel tanker collided with the B-52 during air-to-air refueling. As a result of the collision, the B-52’s left wing detached and the aircraft crashed to the ground with the nuclear weapons it was carrying. Three of the 7 crew members on the B-52 and all 4 people on the tanker lost their lives.


The aircraft and weapons fell near Palomares, a fishing village in Spain. Three weapons, with exploded conventional explosives, were found on land, causing radioactive contamination. A fourth weapon, speculated to have deployed its parachute, couldn’t be located despite an extensive search. The U.S. Air Force sought assistance from the Navy, leading to the formation of a Technical Advisory Group (TAG). Bayesian search theory, guided by Dr. John P. Craven and Francisco Simó Orts, calculated probabilities for map grid squares during the search for the missing bomb.

80 Days After the Incident

False Alarm Incident (1983)

The incident occurred during a tense period in U.S.-Soviet relations. The Soviet Union deployed nuclear missiles, and in response, NATO decided to place nuclear missiles in Western Europe. These missiles could reach targets in Soviet territories quickly. The U.S. also deployed other missiles with a longer range. Between 1981 and 1983, the U.S. carried out secret operations to test Soviet radar and show its nuclear power. These included activities in different seas and flights by American bombers toward Soviet areas, turning away at the last moment.


On September 26, 1983, Stanislav Petrov, a Soviet Air Defense Forces officer, was in charge at a bunker monitoring early warning satellites. The computers signaled an incoming U.S. missile, but Petrov, thinking it was an error, didn’t report it. When the computers detected more missiles, he still suspected a malfunction. Later, it turned out to be caused by sunlight and satellite orbits. Petrov believed a real attack would involve many missiles, and he doubted the new system’s reliability. Despite not having solid evidence from ground radar, he trusted his instincts and didn’t report the false alarms.


After the incident, Petrov faced intense questioning by his superiors. Initially praised, he was later reprimanded for paperwork issues. Despite promises, he received no reward, as the incident embarrassed high-ranking officials. Petrov was reassigned to a less crucial position, retired early, and suffered a nervous breakdown. Some speculate that Soviet leaders, deeply mistrusting the U.S., feared an aggressive response if Petrov had validated the warnings. This distrust may have influenced the decision not to reward Petrov.

Stanislav Petrov (Colorized)

Resources (28/01/2024) (28/01/2024)—kirtland-air-force-base-new-mexico,made%20by%20the%20United%20States.

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