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

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

by Mike Hoffman on September 23, 2013

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.

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{ 91 comments… read them below or add one }

JJ6000 September 23, 2013 at 5:18 pm

Woops.

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Lance September 23, 2013 at 5:26 pm

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

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Bronco46 September 23, 2013 at 6:04 pm

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

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DRTexas September 26, 2013 at 8:01 am

They were interlocks. It doesn't say if they electrical, mechanical, or a combination thereof.

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wtpworrier September 23, 2013 at 6:20 pm

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.

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orly? September 24, 2013 at 1:34 pm

Thank god for that other stealthy nuclear armed force.

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MT1once September 25, 2013 at 9:15 am

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

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michael J September 25, 2013 at 9:35 am

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

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Biggs September 25, 2013 at 6:39 pm

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.

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MT1once September 25, 2013 at 6:48 pm

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

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@AvidFlyer1 September 28, 2013 at 10:23 am

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.

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Jacob September 23, 2013 at 6:38 pm

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?

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platypusfriend September 24, 2013 at 2:50 am

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.

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Mark September 24, 2013 at 12:42 pm

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.

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S O September 23, 2013 at 6:46 pm

“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

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Indian Medicine September 23, 2013 at 7:03 pm

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.

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Joe Boyum September 23, 2013 at 7:10 pm

pedantic. and your PhD is in what again?

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Dr. Horrible September 23, 2013 at 11:20 pm

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.

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Uncle Bill September 24, 2013 at 12:46 am

How embarassing. So pedantic and oh so wrong.

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blight_ September 24, 2013 at 10:03 am

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

Or we can go Imperial units.

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Kyle September 24, 2013 at 3:11 pm

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."

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David Lunceford September 24, 2013 at 10:18 pm

4 megatons is equivalent to 4 million metric ton of TNT. It would take a lot of dynamite to equal that much explosive power.

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Bad Bob September 25, 2013 at 7:58 pm

1 MEGA (million) TON = 1 million tons.
Explosive force measured in megatons relates to amount, by weight, of TNT necessary to produce the explosive force.
This site desperately needs to hire a proofreader, as 4 megatons is 4 million TONS, not 4 million POUNDS. 4 million POUNDS would have been eclipsed by the 20 kiloton blast over Hiroshima, at 20,000 x 2,000 pounds.
For those citing the metric tonnage, the figure actually rises with that, as 1 metric ton is 2,200 pounds.

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amchitka7 September 23, 2013 at 7:13 pm

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

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Paul September 23, 2013 at 7:44 pm

chaos will reign again.

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BlackOwl18E September 23, 2013 at 7:28 pm

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

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Rest Pal September 23, 2013 at 8:12 pm

not the first, nor the last.

just wait and see.

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USS ENTERPRISE September 24, 2013 at 8:59 pm

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

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airbus737 September 25, 2013 at 8:41 pm

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

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Kuzinov September 23, 2013 at 7:35 pm

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".

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Rufus Frazier September 23, 2013 at 8:48 pm

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

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@jimmy2bad September 24, 2013 at 11:28 am

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.

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Bad Bob September 25, 2013 at 8:01 pm

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

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Kuzinov September 26, 2013 at 10:10 pm

It's why they had so many safety mechanisms. The real risk was the U.S and the U.S.S.R. playing with live nukes all the time. No matter how much you reduce the risk of handling them, you never stop handling them. It's actually more surprising we didn't have one or two go off on either side. You name a way to deploy a nuke, and chances were it was out there ready at a moments notice, on plane, submarine, ship,missile,backpack, or artilleryThe Cold War was a time of madness.

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PHP September 23, 2013 at 10:11 pm

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

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charles September 23, 2013 at 11:50 pm

Would have just led to the legalization of marijuana so it could be taxed instead.

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charles September 23, 2013 at 11:48 pm

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?

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Steve September 24, 2013 at 10:56 am

By "stand up" the article meant the creation of the AF Global Strike Command. The Global Strike Command was created in 2009 as a result of the Air Force's problems handling nuclear weapons. The Global Strike Command took over management of nukes from the Air Force's Air Combat Command and Space Command.

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guest September 27, 2013 at 2:56 am

Agree, the correct term is "stand-down"

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anthony September 24, 2013 at 5:14 am

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.?

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bob September 26, 2013 at 12:10 pm

limited radiation is a natural event. ever been around granite?

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Ivan B. Cohen September 24, 2013 at 7:59 am

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.

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Lexington NC September 27, 2013 at 8:39 pm

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.

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Joe Fugyoo September 28, 2013 at 2:43 am

One state away is plenty of distance.

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burkefett September 24, 2013 at 9:28 am

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.

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blight_ September 24, 2013 at 10:02 am

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

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Steve B. September 24, 2013 at 5:14 pm

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.

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guest September 27, 2013 at 2:57 am

slow news day

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Jimbo September 24, 2013 at 10:23 am

How about the Tybee Island Nuke ?

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mike September 24, 2013 at 11:46 am

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.

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Jim September 24, 2013 at 12:23 pm

Should've spent some of that down time studying grammar and spelling.

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guest September 27, 2013 at 3:03 am

I too was in 7th grade and in the Boy Scouts. We practiced a lot of triage for radiation burns and broken bones at our jamborees as well as demo set-ups how to prepare your basements for bomb shelters, water storage, etc. I even remember being at a scout meeting in N.Y. when Kennedy came on TV and said that we were giving the Ruskies a final warning to get their nukes out of Cuber (his pronunciation) or else! Scary times!

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FellowVet September 24, 2013 at 12:27 pm

What happened to the crew?

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Wilderness voice September 24, 2013 at 2:06 pm

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.

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Kyle September 24, 2013 at 3:16 pm

There's an important distinction to keep in mind. One can be thankful the worst did not occur while also questioning why it came down to the last switch in a series. Rickover was well known for his mantra that naval nuclear propulsion operate under the notion of many switches in series. Yes, it would take failure of all the switches for the worst to occur. So it didn't/doesn't.

However, if anything occurs that results in any of those switches closing and shortening the path to failure, you'd better believe you'd be hauled into a critique post-haste to discuss just exactly what happened.

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Atomic Walrus September 24, 2013 at 7:48 pm

We'd need to know more about the nature of the safety systems. If they're simply 4 of the same design, they provide redundancy but not robustness: the same failure (let's say receiving a hard mechanical shock, for example) could affect every unit with the same design. It'd be like securing a building by installing 4 locks of the same type: if a burglar can bypass 1, they can probably bypass all 4. On the other hand, if each system works on a different principle with a different design, there's a good chance that you're building some real robustness into the architecture. A mechanical shock might affect 1 or 2 of the systems, but another 2 might not be vulnerable to that mechanism.

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deafndumb September 25, 2013 at 12:46 am

The point is that the safety system did not work as advertised. These weapons had multiple different type safeties, apparently only one worked as advertised. The responsibility for the construction was not the Air Force but the AEC. Contrary to the sensationalism of the article, the East Coast would have survived, Goldsboro and nearby not. Depending on the upper winds that day, fallout could have caused dramatic loss of life downwind. A number of other hydrogen bombs fell as the result of midairs, none went critical.

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Linn September 24, 2013 at 3:17 pm

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

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Steve B. September 24, 2013 at 5:23 pm
Joe B September 24, 2013 at 8:47 pm

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.

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Michael Shatto September 24, 2013 at 8:56 pm

Reckon six switches was enough.

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USS ENTERPRISE September 24, 2013 at 9:00 pm

Well. Could be worse.

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tiger September 27, 2013 at 7:14 am

It could have landed in Mayberry & Barney Fife had to defuse it? That worse?

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racerjerry September 25, 2013 at 7:52 am

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.

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tiger September 27, 2013 at 11:26 pm

Sorry, that you feel that way. The evil dark force is a movie thing. Not government reality.

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chooch75 September 25, 2013 at 1:11 pm

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

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mikeh September 25, 2013 at 6:47 pm

B-52….SJ didn't have B-47 back then..

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Ushler September 25, 2013 at 1:20 pm

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.

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Bad Bob September 25, 2013 at 8:36 pm

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.

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john September 25, 2013 at 10:21 pm

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

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nukeman43 September 25, 2013 at 10:26 pm

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.

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Nail227 September 25, 2013 at 10:39 pm

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.

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George Spelvin September 26, 2013 at 11:10 am

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

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blight_ September 26, 2013 at 12:15 pm

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!)

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tiger September 27, 2013 at 7:22 am

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.

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pastorvon September 26, 2013 at 11:59 am

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.

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blight_ September 26, 2013 at 12:14 pm

Even a fizzle would've been quite unpleasant.

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pastorvon September 26, 2013 at 12:30 pm

You are correct. A dirty bomb is bad enough. It would have been geographically limited and confined to the surface. A full arming would have been required for a detonation at altitude. [Thanks by the way for reminding me of the proper term, i.e., fizzle. I've been away from the field for a long time.]

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blight_ September 26, 2013 at 12:37 pm

What about SWESS? I'm not finding much information about it (or if the system is even real), but if real, SWESS would predispose a bomb to detonating if armed and the bomb met a series of conditions analogous to a bomber being disabled in mid-air.

It sounds so ludicrous I'm not sure if it's real.

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pastorvon September 26, 2013 at 9:19 pm

For SWESS to have been activated a bomb would have had to be properly armed. A B-52 carrying nukes over the USA would not be flying around with armed weapons.

Richard A September 26, 2013 at 2:07 pm

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.

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guest September 27, 2013 at 7:21 pm

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

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Mike M. January 16, 2014 at 7:51 am

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.

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orly? September 24, 2013 at 1:29 pm

You are forgetting that such an event would potentially lead to WWIII.

One nuke is bad, several nukes…

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Docsenko September 24, 2013 at 7:56 pm

Different type of bomb. What hit the Japanese was small and not as deadly as an hydrogen bomb. It would have blown most of the state into a wasteland. They are nastier than fission bombs. NC and anything close by would be unuseable for many generations to come.

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Jeff m September 25, 2013 at 2:19 am
Jeff m September 25, 2013 at 2:19 am
Jeff m September 25, 2013 at 2:20 am
joe36 September 25, 2013 at 11:00 pm

that is exactly what they said about Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. I walked the streets of Hiroshima in 1957 and Nagasaki in 1971. People who make wild assertions do us all a disservice.

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Rest Pal September 25, 2013 at 4:32 am

WW3? No, as long as the B-52s drop them in the US, nobody outside the US really cares.

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Thomas L. Nielsen September 25, 2013 at 5:24 am

"….simply because the yield is 100 times greater"

About 250-300 times greater, to be technically pedantic, depending on what yield you use for the Little Boy detonation.

Also, the amount of fall-out produced depends a lot on the exact fuzing of the bomb. An airburst at an altitude high enough to prevent the fireball from contacting the ground would produce very limited fall-out. A ground burst, of course, would be very different.

Regards & all,

Thomas L. Nielsen
Luxembourg

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