8 Horrifying Nuclear Missile False Alarms That Sent Americans Into a Panic

False alarms can be a common enough occurrence in life, often involving weather predictions, disease epidemics, or the stock market. While false alarms shouldn’t happen with nuclear weapons, unfortunately they sometimes do. Few situations can cause such widespread panic as those brought on by the report of a nuclear missile on the way. A terrifying mishap in Hawaii in January 2018 was by no means the first time Americans mistakenly believed a nuclear attack was imminent.

Here we’ll take a look at eight historic false alarms involving nuclear missile attacks, many of which brought Americans into a panic.

1. Hawaii warned of a missile on the way

Screen shot of alert saying "ballistic missile threat"

Panic ensued across the state. | Alison Teal/AFP/Getty Images

  • Location: Island of Hawaii
  • Date: Jan. 13, 2018

Residents and vacationers in Hawaii ran for cover on Jan. 13, 2018, when an emergency alert notification hit cell phones and TVs, announcing a “ballistic missile threat inbound to Hawaii.” The alert instructed, “Seek immediate shelter. This is not a drill.” Fearing a North Korean nuclear missile attack, people scrambled to find safety in basements and hangars. A second message, 38 minutes later, stated it was a false alarm.

The mistake was blamed on an employee who “pushed the wrong button.” Hawaii Gov. David Ige tweeted he was meeting with officials to help prevent such a situation from happening again. He later took to Twitter to encourage people to take stock, be better prepared, and “do what we can to demand peace and a de-escalation with North Korea.”

Next: Another situation similar to Hawaii

2. A nuclear warning was just a training tape

F35 Fighter Jets flying in triangle formation

At least 10 fighter jets were deployed. | Handout/South Korean Defense Ministry via Getty Images

  • Location: Colorado
  • Date: November 9, 1979

One historic incident contains stark similarities to the mishap in Hawaii due to the human error factor. On Nov. 9, 1979, a technician mistakenly inserted a training tape into a computer which contained a scenario for a large-scale nuclear attack. As a result, North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) computers indicated a large-scale Soviet attack was headed for the United States. Within minutes, U.S. leaders had prepared nuclear bombers for takeoff. At least 10 fighter planes actually took off, preparing for war.

After six minutes, when satellites still had not confirmed an attack, officials decided action was not necessary. It was determined the human error involving the tape had caused the false alarm. In a letter that has since been declassified, State Department advisor Marshall Shulman said “false alerts of this kind are not a rare occurrence. There is a complacency about handling them that disturbs me.”

Next: When 200 missiles were said to be coming

3. A radar falsely reported 200 missiles

The launch of four ballistic missiles by the Korean People's Army (KPA) during a military drill at an undisclosed location in North Korea

Not one, but 200 missiles appeared to be headed to the United States. | STR/AFP/Getty Images

  • Location: Washington, D.C.
  • Date: June 3, 1980

On June 3, 1980, less than a year after the training tape incident, another computer-related mishap played out. In what sounds like a scene from a movie, U.S. command posts received a bizarre warning in which computers showed a seemingly random number of attacking missiles heading for America. The displays first showed two missiles on the way, then zero, then 200 missiles.

Although many officers did not take this warning as seriously as the previous one with the computer tape, leaders convened to evaluate the situation. Launch crews for U.S. missiles were put on alert, and bomber crews manned their aircraft. But as leaders reviewed the data, they determined no missiles had actually been launched. The misinformation was blamed on a computer chip failure.

Next: An unlikely intruder might have caused nuclear war.

4. A bear set off nuclear alarms

a pair of grizzly cubs shaking off

A bear was in the wrong place at the wrong time. | Joe Raedle/Getty Images

  • Location: Duluth, Minnesota
  • Date: Oct. 25, 1962

During the Cuban Missile Crisis, a shadowy figure was seen scaling the fence of an air base in Duluth, Minnesota. A security guard shot at the intruder and activated an intruder alarm. This automatically set off similar alarms at neighboring bases. One of these bases, located in Wisconsin, accidentally sounded the wrong alarm – ordering planes armed with nuclear missiles to take off. The pilots assumed a nuclear war with the Soviet Union had begun. The only thing that stopped them from taking off was a car from the control tower racing down the tarmac to tell them it was a false alarm. The intruder in Duluth had been identified as a bear.

Next: Contact was lost with 50 ICBM missiles.

5. An underground missile center failed

Warren Air Force Base Missiles

They lost control of 50 missiles at once. | Michael Smith/Getty Images

  • Location: Warren Air Force Base, Wyoming
  • Date: Oct. 23, 2010

Another troubling mishap was blamed on problems at remote underground launch centers. On Oct. 23, 2010, the Warren Air Force Base launch control center in Wyoming lost contact with 50 intercontinental ballistic missiles under its control for almost an hour. The missiles were on high alert and were carrying nuclear warheads. Ability to control and command these missiles was completely lost for the time, and safeguards were compromised that would have stopped unauthorized launch of the missiles. The problem was later blamed on a circuit card in a computer not being properly installed during routine maintenance. Another report cited a possible breach of underground cables deep beneath the base. “We’ve never had something as big as this happen,” said one military officer, as reported by The Atlantic.

Next: Feathered friends or feathered foes?

6. Planes over Turkey were really swans

Swans swim on Round Pond in Hyde Park

These unidentified aircrafts aren’t particularly threatening. | Oli Scarff/Getty Images

  • Location: Colorado Springs, Colorado
  • Date: Nov. 5, 1956

Four separate warnings that happened simultaneously were each found to have their own innocent explanation on Nov. 5, 1956. This occurred during the Suez crisis, leading NORAD at first to believe a large-scale Soviet attack was underway. A Soviet fleet was detected moving in the Aegean, later found to be simply conducting routine exercises. A British bomber was seemingly shot down in Syria, but it was soon determined to be just a mechanical emergency landing. Soviet fighters were flying over Syria, but it was later revealed they were just conducting routine exercises. And most interestingly, unidentified aircraft sighted over Turkey turned out to be nothing more than a large flock of swans.

Next: A dead phone line almost spelled disaster.

7. A failed AT&T switch caused panic

Strategic Air Command military building

A simple switch failure almost sent the country into a panic. | U.S. Department of Defense/Wikimedia Commons

  • Location: Omaha, Nebraska
  • Date: Nov. 24, 1961

Panic ensued on Nov. 24, 1961 when U.S. Strategic Air Command (SAC) headquarters in Omaha, Nebraska lost contact with its early warning radar in Thule, Greenland. When a SAC employee tried to call the NORAD Colorado headquarters to see what was going on, the line there was dead. Both outages were deemed possibly too much of a coincidence, and this prompted concerns an attack was taking place. SAC’s entire alert force was ordered to prepare for takeoff. Fortunately, soon later, contact was established with the Thule base. What had caused the outages that in turn had set off panic? An investigation later found an AT&T switch had failed, causing both the phone line and early warning radars to go dead.

Next: Live missiles accidentally launched.

8. Live nuclear missiles flew across the U.S.

F-16 fighter jet

An Air Force plane carried nuclear weapons for hours without realizing it. | Ian Hitchcock/Getty Images

  • Location: Louisiana
  • Date: Aug. 29, 2007

A U.S. Air Force plane flew from North Dakota to Louisiana on Aug. 29, 2007, without anyone realizing it was carrying six live nuclear-armed cruise missiles. The craft should have been checked in multiple instances before and after the flight, but it wasn’t – illustrating a glaring breach of protocol. The plane and missiles also sat unguarded on the tarmac overnight. Eventually, a maintenance crew noticed the weapons were live nine hours after the plane had landed in Louisiana. In all, for 36 hours no one at the Air Force noticed that six nuclear missiles were missing.

Retired Air Force General Eugene Habiger said of the mishap, “I have been in the nuclear business since 1966 and am not aware of any incident more disturbing.”

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