A USAF B-52 bomber is carefully refuelled in mid-flight — things went wrong in 1966 over Spain, resulting in the release of nuclear weapons and highly radioactive material. Credit: National Interest.

On Jan. 17, 1966, a US B-52 Stratofortress bomber and a refueling plane collided during a refueling operation near the southern Spanish village of Palomares, killing seven of 11 crew members.

At the time, the US was keeping nuclear-armed warplanes in the air near the Soviet border as the Cold War was in full swing.

According to a report in The Associated Press, the midair crash resulted in the release of four deadly hydrogen bombs. None of the bombs exploded, but the plutonium-filled detonators on two went off, scattering 7 pounds (3 kilograms) of highly radioactive plutonium 239 across the landscape.

Experts today say that’s enough to create a dirty bomb big enough to make a major city uninhabitable with a half-life of 22,300 years.

Absolutely deadly stuff.

The 1,600 servicemen who were sent to the crash site area to recover the weapons and clean up the contamination were exposed to dangerous levels of radiation daily for weeks or months at a time, according to court documents filed in federal appeals court by Yale Law School students in Hartford, Conn.

Many of the servicemen later developed various forms of cancer, blood disorders, heart and lung dysfunction and other sicknesses but were denied disability benefits by the US Department of Veterans Affairs, AP reported from court documents.

On Jan. 17, 1966, a US B-52 Stratofortress bomber and a refueling plane collided during a refueling operation near the southern Spanish village of Palomares. Credit: New York Times file photo.

The students are representing Air Force veteran Victor Skaar, of Nixa, Missouri, in a class-action lawsuit seeking benefits for him and others who say they were exposed to radiation during the recovery and cleanup of the undetonated bombs and later became ill.

“The VA has denied those veterans who are now elderly and facing a variety of health concerns benefits and has refused to recognize the conditions of their service for over 50 years,” Yale student Lily Halpern told the US Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims during a hearing held by phone.

“So while this case is about unsound science, it is also about remedying a grave injustice.”

A lawyer for the VA defended the radiation exposure data, and the three-judge panel is not expected to rule for weeks or months, AP reported.

Skaar, an Air Force veteran who is now 83, told The Associated Press in 2017 that he has a blood disorder and developed melanoma and prostate cancer, which were successfully treated. He believes his ailments were related to his service in Palomares, he said.

He and other military members did not wear any protective clothing or masks as they cleaned up the site, he said, and they now feel betrayed by their government, AP reported.

The VA’s denial of disability benefits was based on radiation exposure estimates compiled by the Air Force, Halpern said.

Although most of the military members in Palomares provided urine samples for testing in 1966, Air Force officials did not use 98% of the test results, leading to inaccurate estimates of the radiation exposure that likely were much lower than they really were, she said.

Halpern said the VA did not use scientifically sound evidence as required to deny benefits to the Palomares veterans, and she asked the court to order the agency to reassess the disability claims using sound evidence, AP reported.

President John F. Kennedy and USAF General Curtis LeMay. The two often clashed over military policy, with LeMay favouring a pre-emptive attack on the Soviet Union. Credit: File photo.

The Yale students are seeking to overturn a ruling by the Board of Veterans’ Appeals that rejected Skaar’s appeal of the denial of his benefits.

Mark Vichich, an attorney for the VA and Secretary Robert Wilkie, defended the validity of the radiation exposure estimates during Wednesday’s court hearing.

But Judge Michael Allen questioned Vichich on whether the VA looked into whether the Air Force’s estimates were scientifically sound.

“The secretary has had no reason to suspect that the information the Air Force is giving us is not based on sound science,” Vichich said.

The accident, historians say, was waiting to happen.

Under General Curtis LeMay, Strategic Air Command (SAC) became a terrifying, paranoid and accident-prone force, military website War is Boring, reported.

He envisioned an aerial force capable of launching in under 15 minutes and raining megatons of atomic destruction on America’s enemies.

To achieve this goal, he pushed his pilots, crews and command staff to extraordinary degrees. Drills woke airmen at all hours of the night and required them to ready, launch and pilot bombers with incredible swiftness, the report said.

Servicemen chewed Dexedrine to keep up. No one wanted to disappoint the cigar-chomping LeMay and no one wanted to lose to the Soviets.

In the 1950s and ’60s, LeMay pushed SAC farther and farther. To extend his planes’ ranges, he pioneered aerial refueling. B-52s and B-47s flew through the air carrying live nukes, taking on fuel in mid-flight when they got low.

Fail-safes existed but there were still accidents. In 1958, an F-86 fighter collided with a B-47 over Georgia. The bomber carried a Mark 15 nuclear bomb weighing more than 7,000 pounds, the report said.

The military never recovered the bomb. It’s still sitting in the swamps surrounding Savannah. Between 1956 and 1961 alone, SAC either lost or destroyed more than 20 nuclear bombs in accidents.

Many of the incidents are still classified.

The madness of LeMay, however, was that he thought that Washington should be ready to use its nuclear forces in a preemptive strike.

To his reasoning, it was not a matter of if Russia attacked America with nukes, but when. For LeMay, it made sense to strike first. In an all-out nuclear exchange, the odds of survival overwhelmingly favored the country that struck first.

Thankfully, cooler heads prevailed.