Originally published May 6, 2001
For nearly half a century, Spokane sat at Ground Zero.
The West Plains had more nuclear weapons than most countries had in their entire arsenals.
For much of that time, bombers sat on the flightline at Fairchild Air Force Base with hydrogen bombs in their bellies or nuclear-tipped missiles on their wings, ready to launch with 15 minutes notice.
When John F. Kennedy stared down Nikita Khrushchev over Cuba, Atlas intercontinental ballistic missiles in West Plains silos were poised to send their nuclear warheads over the pole.
Although the Atlas missiles were quickly outdated and removed, the bombers outlasted the Berlin Wall and the Soviet Union. Even when the B-52s left in 1994 because Fairchild became an all-tanker facility, some of the nukes stayed behind, stashed securely in bunkers and igloos on the south side of the base.
But Spokane is no longer a nuclear power. The last of its bombs left quietly in the last year or so.
The Air Force won’t say exactly when they left, just as it didn’t announce when they arrived. But they are gone, a Fairchild spokesman confirmed last week.
Spokane’s nuclear era went out, not with a bang thankfully or even a whisper.
In the beginning
Eastern Washington helped give birth to the atomic age. Work conducted at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation helped create the bomb dropped on Nagasaki, Japan, in 1945. A few years later, the West Plains air base, which was eventually named Fairchild, became the home to a fleet of B-29 bombers.
The bombers were part of the new Strategic Air Command formed in 1947, which would counter a much larger Soviet military ground force if the two former allies ever went to war. One equalizer was the atomic bomb, on which the United States temporarily had a monopoly.
The Air Force didn’t announce when the first atomic bomb arrived at Fairchild. For decades it refused to confirm the existence of any nuclear weapons at any base, at any time.
But in September 1953, a base official told the Chamber of Commerce the city was a “primary target” for the Soviets, who by then had their own nuclear weapons.
City Commissioner Carl Canwell, who was also the area’s civil defense administrator, said he regretted Spokane was in the bull’s-eye, but was glad the fact was finally out in the open.
“For a long time, I’ve known we’ve been sitting on an atomic bomb pile,” Canwell said that day.
Fairchild got newer and bigger bombers – the B-29s were replaced by B-36s in 1951, which were replaced by B-52s in 1956. It presumably got bigger and newer bombs along the way.
On Dec. 12, 1957, a Fairchild B-52 lost control just after takeoff, crashing and burning in a nearby field.
Many B-52s at that time routinely flew armed with nuclear weapons so that the United States could strike back quickly if it was attacked. For nearly 35 years, anti-nuclear groups and even some U.S. government sources listed the crash as a nuclear accident.
But the plane was on a routine training mission and was not carrying any bombs, the sole survivor of the crash said in 1991. The flight manifest obtained by The Spokesman-Review confirmed the plane was not carrying weapons.
Fairchild bombers were not Spokane’s only source of nuclear armaments during the Cold War.
The Air Force put Atlas Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles in silos around the West Plains in 1961. The Atlas E could carry its 4-megaton warhead some 6,500 miles in about 45 minutes.
A megaton is the explosive force of 1 million tons of TNT. The atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima had an estimated force only 15,000 tons.
Less than four years later, the Atlas system was declared obsolete and replaced with bigger and faster Minuteman missiles. The West Plains silos were emptied.
Washington’s Air National Guard unit, which was then based nearby at Geiger Air Force Base, also had nuclear weapons for a while. In the 1960s, the fighter-interceptor squadron was issued F-101 Voodoos, and with them came a missile called the Genie.
The Genie was designed to knock Russian bombers out of the sky from as far away as nine miles. It carried a nuclear warhead estimated at 1.5 kilotons – 1,500 tons of TNT.
The Guard didn’t announce when it was issued nuclear missiles, either. But in 1974, when two officers were suspended, a Guard official mentioned the concern over the security of the Genie nuclear missiles.
The fact that the Guard even had nuclear missiles came as news to Henry Jackson, who at the time was probably the most powerful member of the U.S. Senate when it came to military issues. The Pentagon confirmed that some Guard units were issued nuclear weapons.
That policy was later changed, and only active duty Air Force units were allowed to control nuclear weapons. In an unrelated move, the Air Guard unit stopped flying fighters, and started flying KC-135 tankers.
Spokane’s primary nuclear arsenal, however, was always connected to the bomber wing headquartered at Fairchild.
In the 1950s, the bombs got bigger. Some of them may have had an explosive force of 20 megatons or more – enough to wipe out an entire metropolitan area, even without a direct hit. Then they got more accurate, which allowed them to get smaller.
In the 1970s, the bombers were also issued Short Range Attack Missiles – which were carried on the wings and could be launched at programmed targets 100 miles away.
The SRAMs were followed by the cruise missiles, which flew lower, faster, farther and with a bigger warhead. When the Air Force announced in 1982 it was sending 300 cruise missiles to Fairchild, it was de facto announcing the base had nuclear weapons.
At the time, that type of cruise missile only came in a nuclear version, with a 200-kiloton warhead.
The reaction to the cruise missiles was mixed.
Anti-nuclear activists held a Christmastime candlelight vigil at the base gate, and prayed for peace. They returned almost every December throughout the 1980s.
The summer after the cruise missiles arrived, one Fairchild squadron set up a dummy missile at the base open house, and raised money for a local charity by taking pictures of people “riding” the missile, much like actor Slim Pickens rode a bomb in the movie “Dr. Strangelove.”
That only happened once. Public reaction to a picture of the picturetaking that appeared in The Spokesman-Review prompted base officials to order the squadron to find another way to raise money.
The real danger
American nuclear weapons have enough safety devices that an accident will not set off a nuclear blast. But they do carry radioactive material that can contaminate the surrounding area if it is carried by the smoke from a fire or scattered by a fuel explosion.
Despite decades of loading and unloading bombs and missiles, Fairchild weapons crews never had a serious incident and a Fairchild bomber never crashed with a nuclear weapon on board.
But it did have one close call. On a bitterly cold morning in December 1983, a Fairchild bomber loaded with SRAMs caught fire as it was taxiing down the runway. The fire quickly spread from the wheelwell to the fuselage.
Air traffic controllers in the tower used the term for a nuclear accident – “call a broken arrow” – when calling for firefighters.
The fire crew extinguished the fire before it ignited the fuel in the missiles. Base officials refused to acknowledge the bomber was armed with nuclear weapons – permissible because no nuclear material was released.
But the Air Force awarded 29 firefighters special achievement medals for “working under adverse weather conditions and … the aircraft’s weapon system.” A copy of the plane’s manifest, included in the accident report, said the plane was loaded with SRAMs.
In 1990, members of Congress convinced the Pentagon to retire the SRAMs to inactive storage. Among those writing to then-Defense Secretary Dick Cheney was Spokane’s Rep. Tom Foley.
A new building for Fairchild
The Air Force still does not announce where it keeps nuclear weapons. It’s a pretty safe bet that there are bombs and missiles wherever B-52 and B-2 bombers are stationed. But some additional storage was necessary after the bomber fleet was reduced in the 1990s. Nuclear munitions workers remained at Fairchild when the bombers left in 1994.
In 1998, the Natural Resources Defense Council did a study of government documents and estimated Fairchild had about 85 bombs in storage. The Air Force didn’t comment.
But last week, Fairchild announced plans to build a new administration building for people who maintain the weaponry.
As base construction projects go, it’s relatively small – from $1 million to $3 million for a one-story, 12,200-square-foot brick building that would be far enough from the rows of weapon-filled bunkers to meet new Air Force safety regulations.
In discussing the building, which should be complete by 2003, Maj. Perrin Ashmore, a base spokesman, acknowledged there are no more nuclear weapons in the bunkers.
“We still store some munitions here,” Ashmore said. “There are the basic bullets.”
There are also storage igloos with non-nuclear air-launched cruise missiles, he added.
What about nuclear weapons?
“No,” Ashmore said.
He wouldn’t comment on when or how they left.
Robert Norris, who researches nuclear issues for the defense council, said they likely were ferried on special planes to bomber bases in Louisiana, Missouri or North Dakota, or to a storage facility in New Mexico.
The council has not updated its study, and Norris was unaware they had left.
If the anti-nuclear forces don’t know the bombs are gone and the Air Force isn’t making a big deal out of it, that raises a question.
Has anyone called the Russians to tell them Spokane no longer has the bomb, so we can be taken off the hit list?