A 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.