Report: B-52 Crash Nearly Caused Nuclear Explosion Over North Carolina

nuclear explosionA U.S. Air Force B-52 crash in 1961 that caused two hydrogen bombs to drop over North Carolina came close to causing a nuclear explosion that would have devastated the East Coast, according to a recently declassified government document.

The report written eight years after the crash found that the fall armed five of the six interlocks built into one of the bombs. One single switch prevented one of these Mark 39 hydrogen bombs — 260 times more powerful than the one dropped over Hiroshima — from exploding.

Investigative Journalist Eric Schlosser obtained the document for his new book Command and Control. Parker F Jones, the supervisor of the nuclear weapons safety department at Sandia national laboratories, wrote the report that described the accident over Goldsboro, N.C., on Jan. 23, 1961.

The U.S. government has acknowledged the crash, but has never offered details into how close one of the hydrogen bombs came to exploding.

“One simply, dynamo-techonology, low voltage switch stood between the  United States and a major catastrophe!” Jones wrote.

Each one of the Mark 39 hydrogen bombs carried 4 megatons, or 4 million pounds of dynamite. One fell into a field near Faro, N.C., the other fell into a meadow, nearby. Each could have caused wide spread nuclear fallout to affect states as far north as Pennsylvania.

After evaluating the accident, Jones wrote: “The MK 39 Mod 2 bomb did not possess adequate safety for the airborne alert role in the B-52.”

He used plain English to describe just how close the U.S. Air Force came to the worst disaster in the nation’s history.

“Yeah, it would have been bad news in spades,” Jones wrote.

It was only six years ago that the Air Force faced considerable scrutiny after it lost track of six nuclear weapons leading to major changes throughout the service and the stand up of Air Force Global Strike Command.

About the Author

Michael Hoffman
Michael Hoffman is the executive editor at Tandem NSI and a contributor to Military.com. He can be reached at mhoffman@tandemnsi.com.
  • JJ6000

    Woops.

  • Lance

    Thank goodness for that 4th safety catch on that bomb.

    • Bronco46

      It was the sixth switch, not the fourth. And it was switches not catches. Poor reading comprehension.

  • wtpworrier

    I am not concerned with what happen in 1961, and yes I was around then. What I am concerned with what happened six years ago, and what happened this year with the Air Force…I am not so sure that the AF should be in charge of the nations nukes anymore, they have become very incompetent as of late….and that’s dangerous on a worldly level.

    • orly?

      Thank god for that other stealthy nuclear armed force.

    • MT1once

      Don’t worry about the USAF, the USN is now supervising the Chair Force..

    • michael J

      i to would be more interested in know where those six nuclear weapons are at now as have never heard of them being found or recovered

      • Biggs

        They were never really “lost.” They were loaded onto a plane in North Dakota by mistake and “discovered” at a base in Louisiana when the plane landed.

        • MT1once

          ’tis still a big deal, as obviously 2 man rule had been broken.

    • The Army also has Nukes and I was involved with them in the 70’s and can tell you that the changes they made were enough to keep them from detonating accidentally. The things required to arm one now days are far superior to what they had back in the 60’s That being said we had a lot of precautions in place to track these devices over land. The Air force is a little different than the other services The air force is not as strict as the rest of the armed services because most people who join the Air Fore are more educated and free thinkers, Or Liberal compared to The Army or the Marines. Sh!t happens and I can say from my experience that They should have never had the bombs armed while flying over U.S. land and believe they now have sufficient ways to keep this from happening now. Tracking this stuff is not as easy as one might think, there are Hundreds of thousands of people and thousands of Nukes they have to track ask anyone who is in charge of a large company and you will find out that Control of these things are difficult so the fact that there has not been one bomb exploded by accident since the invention of the Bomb.

  • Jacob

    Read another article on this a few days back, and it seemed a bit vague as to whether we almost had a nuclear detonation or simply having the conventional explosives inside the bomb go off. Also if we did accidentally nuke ourselves, what are the chances we would’ve believed it to be a Russian strike?

    • platypusfriend

      Nuclear weapons weren’t one point safe, back then— In theory, there could have been a fractional yield from just the HE going off. Nowadays (W76, W88, etc.) it’s a lot different.

    • Mark

      The Russians were “reacting to a video that offended them” could have been the story….. And we would have nuked them…..

      And we would have believed them in 1961, but not today.

  • S O

    “4 megatons, or 4 million pounds of dynamite”

    TNT, not dynamite, and much more than four million.

    1 pound ~ 0.454 kg = 0.000454 metric tons.

    Dynamite has a TNT equivalency of only 0.8.

    So measured in dynamite, a 4 MT TNT eq warhead is the equivalent of

    4 *10^6 /(0.454 *0,8) ~ 11 million pounds dynamite

    • Indian Medicine

      It results in “Regular or Extra Crispy” depending where you are in “The Kill Zone”, & then there is the Radiation Sickness from the Fall Out – DOA 3 Weeks at worst if you are Unlucky.
      I prefer instantaneous myself; its more Humane when People get Stupid.

    • pedantic. and your PhD is in what again?

    • Dr. Horrible

      Much more!
      4 MT *1000 T/MT * 2200 lb/T * .8 lb dynamite/lb TNT=7 billion lb dynamite

      Sorry if that annoyed you, Joe. I really am.

    • Uncle Bill

      How embarassing. So pedantic and oh so wrong.

    • blight_

      This is why we have standard units for energy…let’s all switch to the joule now, thanks.

      Or we can go Imperial units.

    • Kyle

      This analysis ignores the bigger error in the article.

      “Each one of the Mark 39 hydrogen bombs carried 4 megatons, or 4 million pounds of dynamite.”

      No they didn’t. If they carried 4 million pounds or 11 million or any other number of millions of pounds of anything, that plane isn’t carrying them.

      Perhaps, “Each one of the Mark 39 hydrogen bombs carried the equivalent of 4 megatons, or 4 million pounds of dynamite.”

  • amchitka7

    Will mankind destroy the world with atomic weapons. No more wars for many years or ever.

  • BlackOwl18E

    Wow. The USAF really fucked that one up big time…

    • Rest Pal

      not the first, nor the last.

      just wait and see.

      • USS ENTERPRISE

        Oh boy. Someone bring up the Soviet submarine records……

      • airbus737

        The AIR FORCE didn’t build them boys. They just drove the bus.

  • Kuzinov

    What I’m taking from the story is that the manual safety worked perfectly. It didn’t go off because nobody had switched it to “ARMED”.

    • Yep. But don’t stop them, they’re on a roll.

    • That wasn’t the conclusion the Air Force came to. They saw it as a failure of 5 safety protocols and a fortunate non-breach of the final, and one of the weakest, measures. These bombs were deemed unsafe for the roll of airborne alert after the incident.

    • Bad Bob

      That is precisely what the media will never report, because it exposes their desperation to slander our nation’s heroes. Shame on them.

  • PHP

    Boy, In 1961 that would have really increased the price of cigarettes. Nuclear Winter in North Carolina… Ouch…

  • charles

    Not sure what was meant by the “stand up of the Air Force Global Strike Command”. Wouldn’t that have been a “stand down” and stop working?

  • anthony

    I am pretty sure there is alot of humans walking around not knowing they have been infected by such mistakes ,Why do some people meaure for rad.?

  • Miracles do happen. If those bombs had exploded, I would not have been here because I live on the east coast…..one state down from North Carolina. At the time of this incident I was in elementary school.

    • Lexington NC

      And i probably would not be here today, having moved here 2 years ago. I live in the Piedmonts and the place would still not be considered a good place to retire.

    • One state away is plenty of distance.

  • burkefett

    Why, exactly, is this suddenly a hot news item? All of the information in that story has been public knowledge for years, if not decades.

    • blight_

      This got dug up by TheGuardian (see the link in the article). DefTech is late.

    • Steve B.

      The current article pointed out how close it was to an actual detonation of the warhead. That was not common knowledge or understood as clearly as is now.

    • guest

      slow news day

  • Jimbo

    How about the Tybee Island Nuke ?

  • mike

    Could a, Would a, Didn’t. .. .. What about the ones that haven’t been heard of? The Cold War wasn’t really all that COLD. I was a kid in Albany Ga. in 1961. My dad was in SAC. all around a scarey time in our history. We lived less than a mile from the alert pad, and when the Buff’s roared off to parts unknown; we all went home and filled the bath tub with water, and got the car packed up to leave. Didn’t know ware we were going. But we were as ready as you could be considering that Turner AFB was ground Zero for a Russian Nuke. Anyway; fun times. . . Ya

    Cheers to all the Kids of the Mushroom clouds.

  • FellowVet

    What happened to the crew?

  • Wilderness voice

    The point here is the designed safety system worked as advertised the bomb did not detonate. There must have been a reason for the 4th safety or it would have only have been designed with 3. Too many non-engineering folks commenting here on emotion not logic.

  • Linn

    My parents live about twent mins south of SJ, I do too… i wasnt born till 64….talk about premature abortion!!!!

  • Steve B.

    Good read on the incident here:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1961_Goldsboro_B-52_

  • Joe B

    I was stationed at Fort Bragg, NC during the time of this incident. This is the first time I have ever heard of it. I would not be here today if the third line of defense on that bomb failed.

  • Reckon six switches was enough.

  • USS ENTERPRISE

    Well. Could be worse.

  • racerjerry

    By what stretch of the imagination do you think that the government would have told the truth if the nuclear bomb had detonated? ‘You know who’ would have been blamed, giving the Pentagon an excuse to go to war.

  • chooch75

    I knew of a error drop but it was a B-47 and not B-52….or was this another boo-boo?

  • Ushler

    You should read about the Port Chicago explosion. Two ammunition ships exploded causing what was called the first nucular type explosion in the US. We have been very lucky.

  • Bad Bob

    The article is incorrect in a major way, which casts a shadow upon its writers.
    Nuclear bombs are rated in thousands (kilo) or millions (mega) of TONS of TNT.
    4 megatons DOES NOT equal 4 million POUNDS of dynamite, especially considering that dynamite is not, by weight, as powerful as pure TNT.
    4 tons of TNT would be 8,000 pounds of TNT.
    4 KILOtons would be 8,000,000 pounds of TNT
    4 MEGAtons, the yield of these warheads, would be 8,000,000,000 pounds of TNT, not a puny 4 million.
    They also err when they estimate the increase in size over the blast at Hiroshima, which was about 20,000 tons (roughly 40 million pounds). Do the math, and you will see what a terrible job at it.
    Beyond that, the net sum of the article is that a safety switch performed as it was supposed to and averted a catastrophe when the need for function, for which it was designed, arrived.

  • john

    Now I know why that piece of property my father bought in NC dropped in price.

  • nukeman43

    I was in SAC worked on nuclear missiles carried on B-52 with safety factors and since the pilot never activated the arm switch on the bomb it would have ever blown up. The cold war days were the best. Served in SAC for all my 21 years except for tour in Vietnam and P I where I was in TAC.

  • Nail227

    Once upon a time, the nukes were not armed until well offshore on the way to destination. It appears to me that unless someone violated procedures, the high explosive section might have exploded but no nuclear reaction would have occurred.

  • George Spelvin

    The Pentagon doesn’t go to war. The President and the Congress do.

    • blight_

      Since when? Congress authorizes war, POTUS is CinC…wait, The Pentagon doesn’t go to war either.

      (Though the image of a giant Pentagon-shaped building on massive treads shooting tracer into the sky and firing rockets is a fun one!)

      • tiger

        Well there is that little 9-11 thing……… not a fun day at the office. The basic point is correct. The nation, via it’s leadership makes the call. The DOD carries out policy.

  • pastorvon

    This was a B-52. But this is an exaggeration of the event. There were five switches to be set before an H-Bomb could be armed for a reason. What might have happened however would have been the arming of the TNT trigger which would have made it into an atomic accident; but more like that of a dirty bomb rather than that of a nuclear explosion.

    • blight_

      Even a fizzle would’ve been quite unpleasant.

  • Richard A

    No Mark 39 hydrogen bomb contains 4 megatons of dynamite (or TNT). You think any airplane ever made could lift a payload of 4 million tons of anything? What they meant to say is that the Mark 39 hydrogen bomb would explode with a force equal to the detonation of 4 million tons of TNT.

  • guest

    1 ton = 2000 lbs
    1 megaton = 1,000,000 tons = 2,000,000,000 lbs
    4 megatons = 8,000,000,000 lbs
    4 megatons is not 4 million pounds it is 8 billion lbs

  • Mike M.

    Schlosser’s story has no basis in fact. He contacted me prior to publishing his book, and of course he relies heavily on information published in two books authored by James C. Oskins and myself. The Mk 39 ready/safe switches (yes, switches) could only be rotated by aircrew intent, aircraft voltage (not bomb voltage), and via a special cable and Aircraft Monitoring and Test Equipment. That in itself took over 19 steps for two physically separate B-52 aircrew members to perform even before pre-arm and release. There were in fact two ready safe switches in each weapon, not to mention at least four components in the arming and firing system that were not activated in order for a nuclear detonation to take place (operation of the two R/S switches, charging of X-unit, cold cathode tube, tritium reservoir, etc).
    Read the facts about the Goldsboro and other nuclear weapons accidents in “Broken Arrow, The Declassified History of US Nuclear Weapons Accidents” (2008), and “Broken Arrow, Volume II- A Disclosure of Significant US, Soviet, and British Nuclear Weapons Incidents and Accidents, 1945-2008” (2010) by Michael H. Maggelet and James C. Oskins. Our books are available on Amazon.com and other booksellers.