Before I get in to this article I would like to take you back to the very early hours of January 1st 2007. While the rest of the world was either tucked away in bed fearing the hangover that would surely visit them the next morning I was eking out a meagre living as a night security guard patrolling the grounds of the Museum of Welsh Life, St. Fagan’s on the outskirts of Cardiff. The museum is actually a little pseudo-village of small houses each representing different periods of Welsh history. I didn’t mind working the New Year’s Eve shift. At the time I had been married for just three months and my money paid for me and my wife to enjoy this early period of wedded bliss before real life hit like the sledgehammer that it is. New Year’s Eve offered double pay which meant an extra night out in town for us come pay day.
It was about 3am and there was a distinctly wet and cold chill blowing in over the old houses. Under such circumstances it’s no wonder so many claim the ghosts of the former tenants of the houses roam the streets at night. I’ll confess I had my own curious encounter one night during the year and a half I worked there which I am hesitant to say was a ghost but still remains something of a mystery. Anyway, I was walking towards a building known as the Toll House when there was a sudden downpour which saw me running for the doorway to take shelter.
I had been standing there for a few seconds when my eyes become overwhelmed by a bright white light. The intensity was such that my eyes physically began to sting as I was totally blinded and I remember throwing my hands to my face and yelling out. Next it was my ears turn to be accosted. Around half a second later a loud explosion roared through the night that was so powerful that my internal organs actually vibrated. Blinded and now deafened I found myself wallowing around in the rain as I blinked my eyes back to working order. It was then my radio crackled in to life as my supervisor called out to see if I was alright. It was only then that I found out that the main museum building had been struck by a bolt of lightning and I was looking straight at it when it hit.
Talking to my supervisor back at the security lodge I told him that it was like seeing and hearing a nuclear blast! And it scared me. Boy did it scare me.
Lightning has always been much more of a threat to aircraft than buildings (or even lowly security guards). From the earliest days of aviation it has wielded its powerful force from the heavens down on to unsuspecting pilots and passengers who by the very nature of their travel are making themselves more susceptible to getting struck. An aircraft is a combination of fuel, metal and other combustible materials that all serve to provide fuel for a possible flying bonfire should a lightning strike occur. Admittedly in the 21st century there are numerous measures in place to limit the effect of lightning but it would be foolish to think that the danger has been entirely eliminated.
But what if an aircraft gets struck by lightning while carrying a nuclear bomb?
Worryingly, it has happened. And the aircraft wasn’t even flying! It was a wet and blustery afternoon at RAF Waddington in Lincolnshire and the weather looked set to worsen in the night. It was August 8th 1967 and Waddington was still on the frontlines of the Cold War with the Soviet Union by helping provide Britain’s nuclear deterrence with its force of Avro Vulcan bombers of Nos.50 and 101 Squadron. The glory days of the Vulcan were quickly diminishing however. Having enjoyed a certain degree of glory when it entered service in the mid to late-1950s the threat of surface-to-air missiles (SAMs) had forced the aircraft to drop its beautiful anti-flash white paint scheme for dirty looking camouflage that signalled the switch from high altitude to low altitude operations. In less than two years the Vulcans would relinquish the nuclear deterrent to the Royal Navy and their force of Polaris missile armed nuclear submarines.
In the meantime the aircraft remained Britain’s first response to a nuclear attack on the west and on this night a handful of aircraft sat on the apron fitted with nuclear weapons. In this instance they were armed with the WE.177 free-fall nuclear bomb, a British designed weapon intended to keep the bombers relevant until the navy could take over. The exact aircraft involved is unknown but as the weather closed in on Waddington bright flashes of lightning lit up the sky on the horizon but the groundcrews and pilots standing alert around the aircraft had no idea just how close the lightning was getting. They were about to find out just how close it was.
A group of groundcrew were stunned by the severity of the lightning and the noise of the thunder. Their heads turned in the direction of the lightning and realized that one of the aircraft had been struck. Their mouths opened, horrified by the realization that the aircraft was loaded with a WE.177 nuclear weapon. One of the groundcrew described the feeling in the immediate aftermath;
“[It was] a bit like a firework which you have lit and it has not gone bang.”
Confirming with their senses that they were still alive they rushed to secure the aircraft and its precious cargo. Thankfully, while the aircraft had sustained some minor burns on the fuselage the WE.177 appeared to remain undamaged. Nevertheless it was removed and inspected further but no damage had been sustained to the casing or the warhead.
Even if the weapon had sustained damage it is unlikely the nuclear warhead would have detonated. A nuclear weapon requires a very specific series of events to occur in order for it to detonate and a direct lightning strike would not achieve that. However there was the possibility of radiation leakage or even a small explosion spreading radioactive material over RAF Waddington.
The incident was not widely reported in 1967 and largely forgotten until 1999 when documents released under the Freedom of Information Act revealed a catalogue of close-calls involving British nuclear weapons. This has only served to further the anti-nuclear campaigning in the UK.