Shock waves resulting from low intensity explosions can easily reach 10,000m/s. About 5% of the energy released in a nuclear air burst is in the form of ionizing radiation: neutrons, gamma rays, alpha particles and electrons moving at speeds up to the speed of light (thus, carrying a hell of a lot of energy). With these stats it appears that for the bomber as well, a nuclear bomb is very bad. How are they protected?

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    $\begingroup$ The UK's nuclear "V" bomber fleet were initially painted in "anti-flash white" due to concerns about heat and light emitted from the explosion. $\endgroup$
    – pjc50
    Commented Jun 17, 2015 at 12:58
  • $\begingroup$ Anti-flash white paint schemes were braught up here. $\endgroup$
    – Lilienthal
    Commented Jun 17, 2015 at 13:44
  • $\begingroup$ They can also use this: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Toss_bombing $\endgroup$ Commented Jun 17, 2015 at 15:26
  • $\begingroup$ Now I have an image of a B-2 doing an Immelmann stuck in my head :-D $\endgroup$ Commented Jun 17, 2015 at 18:46

4 Answers 4


Mostly, no.

The number one factor protecting the aircraft from the effects of the explosion is distance. The aircraft is traveling at a sufficient speed to be very, very far away from the bomb before it detonates. All effects of the explosion can be multiplied by the fraction: 1 / r, where r is the distance between the bomb and the bomber at donation (because circumference is directly proportional to radius). While the effects may be great at the target, they spread out as the circle grows.

Detailed Analysis:

As you emphasize the speed of light of radiation from nuclear reactions, I would like to write something about radiation and how it could influence the aircraft.


Nuclear radiation consists of gamma rays, which are some sort of EM waves and particles like helium nuclei (alpha), electrons (beta) and neutrons (without Greek letter...). There is also some more stuff like positrons, protons or heavier fragments of the nuclei, but they behave similarly.

The particles indeed escape with a large fraction of the speed of light, but this has nothing to do with the nuke. They will escape with the same speed from a nuclear reactor or from tiny probes in a lab. The nuke just spills more particles than the probe, but does not give them more speed.

Alpha & beta radiation

You may know you can stop alpha particles by a piece of paper and beta particles by a 3mm sheet of aluminium. In air (ground, room temperature), alpha particles can travel not more than 10cm, and electrons not more than 10m. The exact range depends on the energy of the particles, but these are the maximum ranges for nuclear reactions. Also, the distances depend on the density of the air, so they travel farther in hot air / at high altitude. In general, there is a high electric field inside atoms, and the charged particles.

Finally, these two particle types will never reach the aircraft throwing the bomb. Even if they could, they would be stuck in the hull and not do any damage.


While alphas and electrons are absorbed on a short range because their charge interacts with the strong fields inside the atoms they are traveling through, neutrons are neutral (really!), which makes them very special. They like to travel through heavy materials like lead, but are easily stopped by plastic or water (one reason for that large swimming pools in nuclear power plants, though swimming usually is prohibited). The reason is that neutrons are like ping pong balls, and lead atoms like basketballs. The basketball will not notice when it's hit by the ping pong ball, while the ping pong ball flies ahead with the same velocity, but different direction. The next hit(s) with other basketballs may put the ping pong ball into its original direction, still with the same speed.
Hydrogen on the other side is a atom as light as the neutron, hence it's like resting ping pong balls. When hit by the neutron, a hydrogen atom is punched back and absorbs a large fraction of the neutrons energy, causing it to slow down. If the hydrogen atom is bound in a molecule, it may be separated from it during this process. That's why plastic is a good shielding material, but nitrogen and oxygen in the air are already too heavy atoms, so air is a bad shielding material.

The metal the aircraft is made of is (nearly) not affected by neutrons. Unfortunately, almost every molecule of the human body contains hydrogen, especially the DNA. While the pilots do not suffer imminent injuries from radiation, this may increase the chance to get cancer.

However, Paul Tibbets, pilot of the Enola Gay (Hiroshima bomb) died in the age of 92.

One fact: "Neutron bombs" are nukes optimized to release a gigantic amount of neutrons. When ignited at high altitude, it kills all animals and humans, leaving the infrastructure (and almost all plants) intact. It's good that they are proscribed by all nations.

Gamma radiation

Coming to gamma radiation. People are most afraid of it, as it penetrates anything, and you know, the Hulk was created by it. Its nature is that all the photons it's made of have a tiny chance to interact with the atoms they are passing by. A few photons are stopped, the rest go ahead. This is why each centimeter of material reduces the intensity by a certain factor, but you will never shield gamma range completely (mathematically). Typical gamma rays need some 10cm of aluminium to reduce the intensity to 50%, or less than 10cm of lead. So, it will pass the aircraft's hull and also the pilots. Again, it will not influence the aircraft. And because it only reacts here and there with matter, there is a high chance the pilot's body will repair the damages, and the pilot will not turn green.

Other effects

Shock wave

As said in the other answers, the explosion causes a big shock wave which will definitely shatter and possibly damage the aircraft. Wikipedia says about the Tsar bomb that it was released from about 10km altitude and detonated at 4km. Using a parachute, the bomb was slowed down allowing the aircraft to travel 45km after release. Yet, the aircraft fell about 1km when it was overtaken by the shock wave.

Edit: The shock wave travels at the speed of sound, so the faster the aircraft, the farther away it is when it's overtaken by the shock wave, and the lower the intensity is. (And there are supersonic aircrafts... However, the Tsar shock wave traveled around the earth three times)


A nuclear bomb releases a lot of heat. It is said that in Hiroshima, trees 10km away from the explosion caught fire. But the aircraft was farther away and its hull is not only well cooled, but also much less inflammable than a dry tree in the summer. Nevertheless, the "Tsar-bomber" was painted with a special heat-reflecting paint according to the Wikipedia article.


Each nuclear bomb also releases a electromagnetic pulse, which can damage wide electric circuits like power grids as well as any semiconductors. However, the hull of an aircraft already provides some protection against this, and the protection can be improved more to make the aircraft EMP-hard. While today's bombers should be immune to EMP due to these protections, I guess the ones which actually have thrown a nuke were immune as they didn't use any semiconductors.


It turns out that radioactivity is not an issue because not all parts have the range to reach the aircraft, and those which do, have no influence on the aircraft.

The highest thread comes from the shock wave, which definitely damage the aircraft or at least bring it into an odd situation. I don't know what an issue heat is, but the Tsar bomber had some heat reflective painting, and an aircraft usually has a good cooling by its environment. EMP is not an issue as military aircrafts are usually already protected against them.


Of course, radiation damage / effects depend on the time something was exposed to radiation as well as the intensity. So, when I wrote gamma rays will not harm the pilot that much, this already includes a larger distance and thus lower intensity. Near the detonation, the gamma radiation alone would kill you.

Being exposed to radiation does not automatically make an object radioactive itself. Gamma rays do not make anything radioactive, they ionize atoms and may destroy molecules. The particles may be captured by atoms forming new isotopes / elements. This isotopes / elements may be stable, or may not. If not, that atom is radioactive. However, for most materials, this induced radioactivity has a short decay time.

As said, alpha particles are not an issue as shielding against them is easy, they even can not penetrate the skin. Harmless? Body cells are most vulnerable to radiation damage during their separation, and your guts are covered with mucous membrane, where this happens very frequently. Swallow a piece of alpha emitting material, and getting cancer is more likely than just possible.

You see, radiation is a vast topic, and what I wrote about aircrafts and pilots may be correct for them, but not in general. Their main protection is: Distance is the best shielding, the farther away, the better.

Hmmm, this answer got a bit longish... sorry for that.

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    $\begingroup$ There also the small problem of most of your own runways being nuked before you get home to land.... $\endgroup$ Commented Jun 17, 2015 at 13:17
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    $\begingroup$ "... though swimming usually is prohibited" - see what-if.xkcd.com/29 $\endgroup$
    – Moshe Katz
    Commented Jun 17, 2015 at 16:44
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    $\begingroup$ It might be nice to sum it up to answer the question. The answer is in there but it's spread way out. I suggest ending with "In short: The type of damage put out by a nuclear blast is mitigated in several ways like [x] so the bomber and crew remain relatively safe...etc etc" (obviously phrased better). Great breakdown and explanation of the different parts! $\endgroup$
    – thanby
    Commented Jun 17, 2015 at 18:11
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    $\begingroup$ @MasonWheeler: In lightning does a single electron travel a long distance? A link would be nice. $\endgroup$
    – user541686
    Commented Jun 17, 2015 at 20:39
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    $\begingroup$ It should be 1/r^2; the shockwave is expanding in a (hemi)sphere. $\endgroup$ Commented Jun 19, 2015 at 18:08

Usually by releasing it from a high altitude or at a high speed. Either one allows some time for the aircraft to depart the immediate vicinity prior to detonation.

The weapon itself can have some control. It can have parachutes that increase the time to reach the target or slow it down, or the weapon can have a time delay even after reaching the ground.

Besides having altitude or speed, the airplane can also toss the weapon in a way that gives additional separation.


There have been cases of aircraft being damaged when dropping nuclear weapons during testing, but AFAIK none have been destroyed as a result.
And those incidents were most likely caused by a test device having a higher than anticipated yield, thus causing the blast effects to have a longer than expected range.

None of the aircraft involved in the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings were damaged as a result, nor was it common during testing.
Even the aircraft involved in the biggest nuclear test ever, the 50MT czar bomba dropped by the Soviets over Nova Zembla, was not damaged (or not seriously) as a result.

Dropping as far away from the intended point of destination is a good way to limit exposure to both radiation and blast, standoff launching by over the shoulder drops or rocket assisted bombs or missiles can allow launching from even greater distances and/or launching from behind terrain featues (like hills), thus actively shielding the launching aircraft.
And the launching aircraft can ensure they place the smallest possible cross section to the point of detonation (iow, turn sharply away from the target zone).


Generally no, or not much, but there were few cases when such mission would have been the last take off ever for the bomber:

  • Tsar bomba, the biggest bomb ever detonated, had 100 Mt yield in its full capacity. This does not leave the bomber many chances to escape. During the test, the yield was reduced till 50 Mt hence the Tu-95 that dropped it was not damaged. I wonder how it would have been during the real war.
  • Due long distances, some B-52 attacks were envisioned as one way missions with ditching areas planned. In this case the problem is with the distance, not with the bomb.
  • $\begingroup$ Czar Bomba, if produced, would have been delivered by ICBM rather than bomber. A variant of the accident plagued N1 rocket was envisioned to carry the 100MB behemoth. $\endgroup$
    – jwenting
    Commented Jan 17, 2018 at 11:40
  • $\begingroup$ I am not fully sure on this, it was almost too heavy even for Tu-95 $\endgroup$
    – h22
    Commented Jan 17, 2018 at 19:34
  • $\begingroup$ the 100MT variant would not have been any larger or more massive than the 50MT variant. The main difference would have been replacing the lead casing and tamper with uranium ones. The difference in weight introduced by that is minor. $\endgroup$
    – jwenting
    Commented Jan 18, 2018 at 6:49
  • $\begingroup$ There is no any reliable source on that Soviet Moon rocket (N1) was meant for delivering this bomb. Saturn V was not an ICBM either. $\endgroup$
    – h22
    Commented Jan 18, 2018 at 8:27
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    $\begingroup$ I've read it in several books relating to the Soviet nuclear and space programs. Whether the design team ever seriously thought it would work is one thing, but they did suggest it to the Politburo. Of course the military viability of the Czar Bomba as an actual weapon has also not been established. Many people believe it never was intended to be weaponised, was purely a publicity stunt. $\endgroup$
    – jwenting
    Commented Jan 18, 2018 at 8:49

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