Prior to the signing of the Partial Nuclear Test Ban Treaty in 1963 nuclear weapons states had free reign to test nuclear devices wherever and whenever they pleased. Many of these tests were developmental tests for different types of bombs, using different combinations of nuclear material or device configurations. In total, 1,054 nuclear tests were conducted by the United States and 715 by the Soviet Union.
Nuclear warheads and missiles have always been tested separately. Missile tests were conducted with live payloads and the nuclear devices were either dropped from planes, detonated in sealed underground shafts, or on fixed towers. Never was a live nuclear warhead actually placed on a missile and launched…until May 6, 1962.
This test was designated Frigate Bird. It was a special test. It was and is, the only a live test of an armed nuclear missile.
The test began when the USS Ethan Allen submerged to firing depth and launched a Polaris A-2 missile across the Pacific test range toward Christmas Island in the South Pacific. The missile flew 1100 to 1200 miles and reached a height of 400 miles.Flying at hypersonic speeds, The weapon took only 12 to 13 minutes to reach it’s destination.
Armed with a live W-47 thermonuclear warhead, the missile exploded high above the pacific. The warhead worked perfectly. The W-47 exploded at a height of roughly 4,000 meters about 1.2 miles from the center of the target zone. The yield was a full 600 kilotons, 40 times as powerful as the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima.
The USS Carbonaro was submerged only 30 miles from the detonation and filmed the explosion from just under the waterline through it’s parascope.
The Test Ban Treaty signed next year and a live test of a complete nuclear weapons system has never occurred since.