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LOOKING BACK: The crash, the Inuit and the bomb

When a top-secret U.S. jet went down near Nunavut, it left a mystery: Is there a nuke beneath the ice?

By Nathan VanderKlippe.


There was nothing unusual about the cold or dark on the afternoon of January 21, 1968. It was the mid-winter at the U.S. Thule Air Force Base in northern Greenland, where the sun disappears from October until February, locking the place in a long, bitter midnight. What was unusual was the aircraft in the sky, a B-52 flying 35,000 feet above the glaciers and sea ice, its presence an international secret, its belly laden with nuclear bombs; its crew fighting catastrophe.

It had started with shivers in the cabin, as the seven men on HOBO-28, the flight’s call-sign, sought to bring heat into a plane afflicted with an unusual chill. Desperate for warmth, they turned to emergency measures to draw warmth from the bomber’s engines. What most of the crew didn’t know was that one of the heat vents in the cabin was buried behind cloth-covered foam cushions. Blasted with scorching air, they burst into flames.

The men rushed to respond, emptying fire extinguishers into the blaze. They couldn’t put it out. Plumes of smoke filled the cockpit, the fire eating at critical aircraft components. The electrical power failed. HOBO-28 was crippled. The crew ejected.

They left behind a B-52 screaming through the Greenland skies with no pilot and a payload of nuclear weapons. This plane was going down, careening toward the narrow stretch of ice that separates Thule, roughly two-thirds up Greenland’s west coast, from Nunavut’s Ellesmere Island. The only question was: What would happen to its deadly cargo?

It’s a question that nearly half a century has done little to answer. Even today, the fate of one of HOBO-28’s four bombs remains the subject of debate, conspiracy theories and lingering unease. Parts of three bombs were definitively identified. But what about the fourth? Is there a nuclear weapon lying on the seabed near Canada’s Arctic waters, leaking radiation or, worse, posing a continued threat of explosive disaster?

HOBO-28 has become, in some ways, the Cold War’s search for Franklin – but this high-latitude mystery is buried not just in deep water, but in military documents marked “secret” and blackened by extensive redactions that hide crucial details. After decades of cleanup work, reports, lawsuits and government inquiries, the truth remains elusive.

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