In 1961 a U.S. Air Force B-52 almost detonated an atomic bomb over North Carolina

Sep 21 2013 - 12 Comments
By Richard Clements

The UK Newspaper The Guardian has released details under the freedom of information act, which chronicle how on Jan. 23, 1961 one small frail fail safe switch averted a disaster of biblical proportions.

Earlier on that day, a B-52 had departed Seymour Johnson Air Force Base armed with two Mk39 Hydrogen bombs, both with a yield of 4 megatons or to put it another way, with bombs each 260 times more powerful than the weapon that had been dropped on Hiroshima during World War II.

The B-52 was to fly down the East Coast as an airborne alert aircraft, which would have been called upon should the need arise. The article doesn’t go into detail but the story is known: the B-52 got into difficulties and ended up breaking apart in the air. The rear of the aircraft began a tail spin at which point the bombs got separated from the aircraft, one of the bombs then did as it was designed to do and it deployed its parachute and armed itself as if descended towards the ground.

Eight years after the accident a secret report was written by Parker F Jones. That document was released under the freedom of information act, the Guardian found it and documented how close the incident brought Goldsboro in North Carolina, and the U.S. East Coast to a major catastrophe (whereas the U.S. government repeatedly denied that its nuclear arsenal had put American lives at risk).

As it went into a tailspin, the hydrogen bombs it was carrying became separated. One fell into a field near Faro, North Carolina, its parachute draped in the branches of a tree; the other plummeted into a meadow off Big Daddy’s Road.

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.

It then said: “Had the device detonated, lethal fallout could have been deposited over Washington, Baltimore, Philadelphia and as far north as New York city – putting millions of lives at risk.

A low voltage switch saved the U.S. from a nuclear Armageddon.

Richard Clements for


Image credit: U.S. Air Force

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  • Doc Strangelove

    This low voltage switch may have been part of a strong link/weak link coupling and thus would have worked quite properly, I suppose.

  • My guess is that the italicised text in the ‘article’ is from the Guardian and only paraphrased the actual report in the most sensational manner; considering the numbers of nuclear weapons that have been built, that there have been NO accidental detonations is probably a more accurate indication of the reliability of the fail-safes.

  • crab

    It might have saved the entire world, as it would have been easy to attribute the attack to the commies, and then procceed with “total commitment”.

  • sferrin

    This is ancient news that some journalist just discovered. And other journalists, just as uninformed, have picked it up and ran with it. Next up, “Man walks on moon!!”

    • cencio4

      The news is quite obsolete, and there’s a wiki – linked in the article – about the incident. But, until a few days ago, it was not clear how close to disaster the Goldsboro incident brought the U.S. East coast.
      That’s it.

      • Will Coles

        Knowledge of the event is old news, the factors on what exactly happened & that three of the four components that guard against accidental detonation failed is news. Please read the article. The comments are worth reading too as the journalist responds to several non-readers making similar accusations.

  • ask2wice

    The two-man rule requires two people to be in agreement before a nuclear weapon can be armed. And as with submarine or land-based ICBMs, the arming switch or button must be pressed or turned by both parties within a prescribed amount of time or the “special weapon” will not arm itself.

    There are two identical “boxes” or “control panels” on-board all nuclear-capable aircraft. The electronics in these boxes directly communicate with the weapon. It is controlled by the pilot and someone else (a qualified officer) sitting at another station on the aircraft. The two operators
    are physically separated by a distance so that no one person can, by themselves, arm the weapon. Certainly this existed back in the early 60’s. So my question is … how could a nuke arm itself simply because it was unintentionally ejected from the aircraft? So the system that insures two-man arming of the weapon failed? Was that one of the four safety mechanisms that did not work properly? If so, what a major design screw-up! … or perhaps the man below was the aircraft command pilot!!!

  • ask2wice

    I should have read the Wiki article before I made my previous post. It seems that it was the “arm-safe” arming mechanism that DID save the day! From Wikipedia:

    “Former military analyst Daniel Ellsberg has claimed to have seen highly classified documents indicating that its safe/arm switch was the only one of the six arming devices on the bomb that prevented detonation”.

  • b-matt

    And there must be for sure plenty of other similar cases. But most of them are forgotten (like this:
    or have never been made public….

  • aniptofar

    According to the info I read, none of the bombs had the pit installed so they would not have gone high order/fissioned.

    • MattD

      Don’t go confusing progressive malcontents (The Guardian) with facts.

      • Aron

        And yet the facts corroborate the story. Nice try, boyo.