Stories from the Cold War

Command and Control

Several years ago I read Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Accident, and the Illusion of Safety by Eric Schlosser. (Thanks for the suggestion, Andy!) It’s a fabulous look at how complex systems break down and reminded me of Richard Feynman’s examination of the Challenger explosion. I highly recommend it.

This excerpt has stuck with me and I think about it every now and then. The book is full of stories like this:

The weapon accidents often felt sudden and surreal. On December 5, 1965, a group of sailors were pushing an A-4E Skyhawk fighter plane onto an elevator aboard the USS Ticonderoga, an aircraft carrier about seventy miles off the coast of Japan. The plane’s canopy was open; Lieutenant Douglas M. Webster, its pilot, strapped into his seat. The deck rose as the ship passed over a wave, and one of the sailors blew a whistle, signaling that Webster should apply his brakes. Webster didn’t hear the whistle. The plane started to roll backward. The sailor kept blowing the whistle; other sailors yelled, “Brakes, brakes,” and held on to the plane. They let go as it rolled off the elevator into the sea. In an instant, it was gone. The pilot, his plane, and a Mark 43 hydrogen bomb vanished. No trace of them was ever found; the ocean there was about three miles deep. The canopy may have closed after the plane fell, trapping Webster in his seat. He had recently graduated from Ohio State University, gotten married, and completed his first tour of duty over Vietnam.
pp. 312

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