The 1961 Goldsboro B-52 crash was an accident that occurred in Goldsboro, North Carolina, on this day in 1961. A B-52 Stratofortress carrying two Mark 39 nuclear bombs broke up in mid-air, dropping its nuclear payload in the process.
The pilot in command ordered the crew to eject at 9,000 feet (2,700 m). Five men successfully ejected or bailed out of the aircraft and landed safely. Another ejected but did not survive the landing, and two died in the crash. Controversy continues to surround the event as information newly declassified in 2013 reinforced long-held public suspicions that one of the bombs came very close to detonating.
The bomb that descended by parachute was found intact, and standing upright as a result of its parachute being caught in a tree. According to Lt. Jack Revelle, the bomb disposal expert responsible for disarming the device, the arm/safe switch was still in the safe position, although it had completed the rest of the arming sequence. The Pentagon claimed at the time that there was no chance of an explosion and that two arming mechanisms had not activated. A United States Department of Defense spokesperson told United Press International reporter Donald May that the bomb was unarmed and could not explode. 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. In 2013, information released as a result of a Freedom of Information Act request confirmed a single switch prevented detonation.
The second bomb plunged into a muddy field at around 700 miles per hour (310 m/s) and disintegrated without detonation of its conventional explosives. The tail was discovered about 20 feet (6.1 m) below ground. Pieces of the bomb were recovered. According to nuclear weapons historian Chuck Hansen, although the bomb was partially armed when it left the aircraft, an unclosed high-voltage switch had prevented it from fully arming. In 2013, ReVelle recalled the moment the second bomb’s switch was found. “Until my death I will never forget hearing my sergeant say, ‘Lieutenant, we found the arm/safe switch.’ And I said, ‘Great.’ He said, ‘Not great. It’s on arm.’” Excavation of the second bomb was abandoned as a result of uncontrollable ground-water flooding. Most of the thermonuclear stage, containing uranium and plutonium, was left in place, but the “pit” or core of the bomb had been dislodged and was removed . The United States Army Corps of Engineers purchased a 400 feet (120 m) circular easement over the buried component. The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill determined the buried depth of the secondary component to be 180 feet (55 m), plus or minus 10 feet (3.0 m).
ReVelle, speaking to a writer in 2011 of the bomb that he said nearly detonated:
“As far as I’m concerned we came damn close to having a Bay of North Carolina. The nuclear explosion would have completely changed the Eastern seaboard if it had gone off.”
He also said the size of each bomb was more than 250 times the destructive power of the Hiroshima bomb, and large enough to have a 100% kill zone of seventeen miles. Each bomb would exceed the yield of all munitions (outside of testing) ever detonated in the history of the world by TNT, gunpowder, conventional bombs, and the Hiroshima and Nagasaki blasts combined.