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USAF Almost Nuked North Carolina In 1961 – Declassified Document 586

Freshly Exhumed sends in a story about how close the United States came to accidentally attacking itself with nuclear weapons just a few days after John F. Kennedy took office. "A secret document, published in declassified form for the first time by the Guardian today, reveals that the U.S. Air Force came dramatically close to detonating an atom bomb over North Carolina that would have been 260 times more powerful than the device that devastated Hiroshima. The document, obtained by the investigative journalist Eric Schlosser under the Freedom of Information Act, gives the first conclusive evidence that the US was narrowly spared a disaster of monumental proportions when two Mark 39 hydrogen bombs were accidentally dropped over Goldsboro, North Carolina on 23 January 1961. The bombs fell to earth after a B-52 bomber broke up in mid-air, and one of the devices behaved precisely as a nuclear weapon was designed to behave in warfare: its parachute opened, its trigger mechanisms engaged, and only one low-voltage switch prevented untold carnage."
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USAF Almost Nuked North Carolina In 1961 – Declassified Document

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  • by turkeydance ( 1266624 ) on Friday September 20, 2013 @06:49PM (#44908241)
    the triple fail-safe worked.
  • Here's what's new (Score:5, Informative)

    by gman003 ( 1693318 ) on Friday September 20, 2013 @07:00PM (#44908329)

    The accident has been known about for some time (I first read about it while researching a story I was writing - the protagonist had to build a nuclear bomb, so I was looking for lost and unrecovered nuclear material).

    We have also had reports that one of the bombs was nearly armed. These were officially denied by the military, but it was confirmed by several military members.

    The new development is that the documentation saying "yeah, that bomb nearly went off" has been declassified. Basically the same deal as the Area 51 thing a while back - everyone knew, but now everyone is "allowed" to know.

  • by timeOday ( 582209 ) on Friday September 20, 2013 @07:10PM (#44908433)
    No, the amazing thing is that the triple fail-safe failed! It was only the 4th and final failsafe that did not fail!

    Jones found that of the four safety mechanisms in the Faro bomb, designed to prevent unintended detonation, three failed to operate properly. When the bomb hit the ground, a firing signal was sent to the nuclear core of the device, and it was only that final, highly vulnerable switch that averted calamity.


    If you had the choice between a repeat of this, vs. a certain 9/11-scale attack tomorrow, which would you choose?

  • by Anonymous Coward on Friday September 20, 2013 @07:21PM (#44908495)

    During the Cold War, we had nuclear-armed bombers in the air 24/7 in case of a Russian strike. When you're doing something 24/7, it becomes routine.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Friday September 20, 2013 @07:32PM (#44908565)

    From wikipedia:

    The 1966 Palomares B-52 crash or Palomares incident occurred on 17 January 1966, when a B-52G bomber of the USAF Strategic Air Command collided with a KC-135 tanker during mid-air refuelling at 31,000 feet (9,450 m) over the Mediterranean Sea, off the coast of Spain. The KC-135 was completely destroyed when its fuel load ignited, killing all four crew members. The B-52G broke apart, killing three of the seven crew members aboard.[1]

    Of the four Mk28 type hydrogen bombs the B-52G carried,[2] three were found on land near the small fishing village of Palomares in the municipality of Cuevas del Almanzora, Almería, Spain. The non-nuclear explosives in two of the weapons detonated upon impact with the ground, resulting in the contamination of a 2-square-kilometer (490 acres) (0.78 square mile) area by plutonium.


    The B-52G began its mission from Seymour Johnson Air Force Base, North Carolina, carrying four Type B28RI hydrogen bombs[3] on a Cold War airborne alert mission named Operation Chrome Dome.

    Guess where the B-52 that broke up over Goldsboro flew out from? That's right, Seymour Johnson Air Force base!

    What the article doesn't make clear is if the detonation of the bomb in Goldsboro would have been nuclear, or whether it would have only set off the non-nuclear charges like the two bombs in Palomeres.

  • by ebno-10db ( 1459097 ) on Friday September 20, 2013 @07:43PM (#44908665)

    The arming mechanisms are only supposed to work when you arm the bomb! That was not done. Wisely, the USAF decided that an airplane crash should not cause a nuclear explosion, hence the requirement to arm the bombs before detonation. The intent was right, but the execution was a close run thing.

  • by rhook ( 943951 ) on Friday September 20, 2013 @07:52PM (#44908715)

    Most likely it was a safety feature since nukes have to be armed right before they are used. This is by design so that they do not go nuclear is the event of an accident such as this one.

  • by Anonymous Psychopath ( 18031 ) on Friday September 20, 2013 @08:05PM (#44908767) Homepage

    the triple fail-safe worked.

    or put it another way, a simple switch on a nuclear bomb failed as it fell to earth, rendering it inoperable. doesn't inspire much confidence for when it is used in war.

    Nope. It was a safety mechanism that worked as intended, after three others did not. The bomb did not malfunction.

  • by DarkOx ( 621550 ) on Friday September 20, 2013 @08:15PM (#44908833) Journal

    No, a ground bust is not the worst case scenario. A near ground burst is. My understanding is most nukes are designed to go off a few hundred meters above ground. Still plenty close enough to toss a plume of horrendously radioactive dust and debris all around but also position to expose a large area to the heat and shock of the blast.

  • by Colin Douglas Howell ( 670559 ) on Friday September 20, 2013 @08:37PM (#44908931)
    Others have already linked to Wikipedia's article about the crash [], with one guy saying "sounds like a wing fell off". Reading the article, that seems fairly close to the mark, though not quite right. Here's a summary of what happened to the bomber:

    The bomber was on an "airborne alert mission", meaning that it was carrying live nukes while flying on a route and schedule that would make it ready to perform a nuclear attack on the Soviet Union on short notice. (This was part of a program called Operation Chrome Dome [].) While it was refueling from a tanker over North Carolina, the tanker crew told the bomber crew that the bomber's right wing was leaking fuel. The bomber broke off from the refueling, informed ground control, and were ordered to fly offshore and hold to burn off most of their fuel load, to reduce the risk of an emergency landing. However, on the way to the holding point, the fuel leak rapidly worsened and became critical, and the plane was then ordered to land immediately. During the descent toward the field, while passing through 10,000 feet altitude, the pilots found they could no longer keep the aircraft under control. The captain ordered the crew to eject; those who survived reported that the plane was still intact when they last saw it. Once the airplane went out of control, it must have gone into an uncontrolled spiral dive, a "tailspin"; that's what frequently happens to a flying airplane when control is lost. Such a dive is often fatal for the airplane long before it reaches the ground; the aerodynamic stresses increase so fast that it breaks up in the air.

    From the sound of it, there was some sort of structural failure in the right wing which got rapidly worse. The wing did not actually fall off while the pilots were inside, but the failure became so bad that they couldn't maintain control and were forced to bail out. Unfortunately, even this article puts so much focus on what happened to the nukes that the important question of what caused the bomber accident in the first place is ignored. It would be nice to see what the Air Force's accident report has to say on this.
  • by gd2shoe ( 747932 ) on Friday September 20, 2013 @08:45PM (#44908973) Journal
    I forget the physics term, but they actually get a double shockwave this way. (The blast as it's coming down, and as it's coming back up. It's like the way a fold in a piece of paper is thicker.)
  • Re:Ironical justice (Score:4, Informative)

    by ebno-10db ( 1459097 ) on Friday September 20, 2013 @09:08PM (#44909111)

    Japanese killed millions of Americans?

    Can you read? Where did I say Americans?

    US leadership was and is The single most bloodthirsty entity ever to have occurred on this side of the Universe. You can drink any cool-aid you want but that is a fact, you can check the list of illegal aggressions by the US.

    The Nazi invasion of the USSR killed over 30 million people. The Japanese invasion of China killed between 20 and 35 million. The Rape of Nanjing alone killed more people than in Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined. What are you smoking?

  • by ebno-10db ( 1459097 ) on Friday September 20, 2013 @09:22PM (#44909203)

    The military still doesn't.

  • by AJWM ( 19027 ) on Saturday September 21, 2013 @12:12AM (#44909905) Homepage

    I forget the physics term,

    Mach stem.

    You're welcome. ;)

  • by khellendros1984 ( 792761 ) on Saturday September 21, 2013 @03:08AM (#44910353) Journal

    Hearing the sonic boom of the B-52s

    How does an aircraft with a max speed around mach 0.86 make a sonic boom?

  • by Hognoxious ( 631665 ) on Saturday September 21, 2013 @05:47AM (#44910653) Homepage Journal

    A fault with the warning system rather than bombs per se, but it makes you think. []

  • by unitron ( 5733 ) on Saturday September 21, 2013 @06:03AM (#44910675) Homepage Journal

    I was 9 when this happened also, living about 3 counties Southeast of the crash site, certainly close enough to have seen a very bright light and heard a very loud noise if anything went off.

    The B-52 in question was trying for an emergency landing at Seymour Johnson AFB, where my Dad did his active duty Reserve obligation every summer back then

    Chances are if one of them had gone off it wouldn't have been over Wayne County but "in" it, as in buried in the dirt.

    The one with the parachute wound up with about a foot and half of the nose underground but the other one, falling unimpeded, hit a field near a swampy area, and despite digging down over 40 feet, they still haven't recovered all of it.

    Most of the stuff in this latest release was already known, though. [] [] []

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