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The Goldsboro Incident: The Time the US Almost Nuked Itself

The Goldsboro incident remains the closest the US has come to nuclear annihilation
The Goldsboro incident remains the closest the US has come to nuclear annihilation

The Goldsboro Incident would’ve set off the Third World War.

In the midst of the Cold War, a catastrophic event occurred in 1961 that shook the small town of Goldsboro, North Carolina, to its core. The Goldsboro Incident, occurred on January 23rd of that year, a Boeing B-52 Stratofortress carrying two Mark 39 nuclear bombs disintegrated mid-flight, raining down its deadly payload on the unsuspecting town below.

The events leading up to this disaster, and the aftermath that followed, are harrowing reminders of the dangers that come with nuclear weapons. Despite the bravery of the crew, who ejected at 9,000 feet, the consequences of the Goldsboro B-52 crash are still being felt to this day, as new information about the incident continues to be revealed.

The Goldsboro incident of 1961 was a disaster waiting to happen. The mid-air disintegration of the Boeing B-52 carrying two nuclear bombs could have resulted in a nuclear explosion that would have devastated the small town of Goldsboro, North Carolina.

A Deadly Crash at Goldsboro: The Goldsboro Incident

The Goldsboro B-52 crash of 1961 occurred on January 23, close to Goldsboro, North Carolina. Two 3- to 4-megaton Mark 39 nuclear bombs were being carried by a Boeing B-52 Stratofortress when it disintegrated in midair, dropping its deadly cargo. Walter Scott Tulloch, the pilot in command, ordered the crew to eject at 9,000 feet (2,700 meters).

Two crew members died in the crash; one ejected but did not survive the landing, and five successfully ejected or bailed out of the aircraft and landed safely. Three of the necessary triggering devices for one of the explosives to detonate had been engaged, according to information disclosed in 2013.

The Goldsboro Crash: What Really Happened?

The B-52G plane was based at Goldsboro’s Seymour Johnson Air Force Base. The bomber and a tanker met up at midnight on January 23 and 24, 1961, to conduct an airborne refueling. The B-52 aircraft commander, Major Walter Scott Tulloch, informed the tanker crew that his aircraft had a gasoline leak in the right-wing during the hook-up.

Ground control was informed of the issue after the refueling was aborted. The plane was instructed to fly in a holding pattern until its fuel was used up. However, the pilot of the B-52 reported that the leak had gotten worse and that 37,000 pounds (17,000 kg) of gasoline had been lost in three minutes.

The plane was immediately instructed to head back to Seymour Johnson Air Force Base and land.

Air Force personnel working in an underground pit to recover parts of the nuclear bomb

Air Force personnel working in an underground pit to recover parts of the nuclear bomb

The pilots lost control of the airplane as it descended 10,000 feet (3,000 m) as it approached the airfield. At 9,000 feet (2,700 m), the command pilot ordered the crew to leave the aircraft. One man did not survive his parachute drop, two died in the crash, and five landed successfully after ejecting or bailing out through a hatch.

Lt. Adam Mattocks, the bomber’s third pilot, is the only person who has safely exited a B-52’s top hatch without using an ejection seat.

Two Mark 39 thermonuclear bombs with yields of between 2 and 4 megatons were still aboard the aircraft when the crew last saw it, but they were detached from the gyrating plane as it disintegrated between 1,000 and 2,000 feet (300 and 610 m) over the ground.

At Faro, approximately 12 miles (19 km) north of Goldsboro, the airplane wreckage blanketed a 2-square-mile (5.2 km2) patch of tobacco and cotton farmland.

One of the bombs’ three arming mechanisms engaged after it separated, forcing it to carry out several actions required to arm itself, including charging the firing capacitors and opening a parachute with a diameter of 30 meters (100 feet).

How the US Narrowly Escaped a Major Catastrophe

The first parachute-dropped bomb was discovered unharmed and standing upright after getting its parachute tangled in a tree.

The arm/safe switch was still in the safe position even after the remainder of the arming sequence had been completed, according to Lt. Jack ReVelle, the explosive ordnance disposal (EOD) officer in charge of disarming and securing the bombs from the wrecked aircraft.

At the time, the Pentagon asserted that there was no possibility of an explosion and that two arming mechanisms had not been engaged. The bomb was unarmed and could not detonate, according to a United States Department of Defense representative.

A nuclear bomb hanging from a tree

A nuclear bomb hanging from a tree

The only one of the six arming mechanisms on the bomb that avoided detonation was its safe/arm switch, according to highly classified documents allegedly viewed by former military analyst Daniel Ellsberg.

One switch out of four (not six) averted detonation, according to information made public in 2013 after a Freedom of Information Act request.

The Bomb Lands in the Field

At about 700 mph (310 m/s), the second bomb slammed into a muddy field and shattered without igniting its conventional explosives. The tail was found at 20 feet (6.1 meters) below the surface. The bomb’s fragments were found. The bomb was only partially armed when it left the airplane due to a high-voltage switch that was left open.

When the arm/safe switch for the second bomb was discovered, ReVelle described it in 2013: “Till my death, I will never forget hearing my sergeant remark, “Lieutenant, we found the arm/safe switch.” I said, “Wonderful,” but he corrected me, “Not fantastic. It’s on arm.”

The simple switch saved the USA from a nuclear catastrophe

The simple switch saved the USA from a nuclear catastrophe

The second bomb’s excavation was eventually stopped due to uncontrollable ground-water inundation. The “pit,” or core, of the weapon containing the uranium and plutonium required to start a nuclear explosion was removed, but most of the thermonuclear stage was left in place.

A circular easement with a circumference of 400 feet (120 meters) was bought by the US Army Corps of Engineers over the sunken part. The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill determined the secondary component’s buried depth to be 180 feet.

The Declassified Documents of the Recovered Weapons

The bomb was hanging from a tree, and Lt. Jack Revelle, the bomb disposal expert in disarming the device, found that the ARM/SAFE switch was in the SAFE position. The ARM/SAFE switch was in the arm position on the second bomb, but it was damaged when it landed in a muddy meadow.

According to Revelle, each bomb yielded more than 250 times greater than the Hiroshima bomb’s destructive force, creating a 100% kill zone across a 13.7 km (8.5 mi) radius.

Parker F. Jones, a supervisor of nuclear safety at Sandia National Laboratories, wrote a now-declassified 1969 report titled “Goldsboro Revisited,” claiming that “one simple, dynamo-technology, low voltage switch stood between the United States and a major catastrophe.” He also commented, “No one will ever know why the bomb did not go off…”

EOD personnel work to recover the buried Mk. 39 thermonuclear bomb that fell into a Faro, North Carolina field in 1961.

EOD personnel work to recover the buried Mk. 39 thermonuclear bomb that fell into a Faro, North Carolina field in 1961.

Before the September 2013 declassification, writers James C. Oskins and Michael H. Maggelet of Broken Arrow: The Declassified History of the U.S. Nuclear Weapons Accidents refuted, citing a declassified paper, the assertion that a bomb was just one step away from going off.

They point out that the rotary safety switch was damaged, the arm-ready switch was in the safe position, the high-voltage battery was not activated (which would prohibit the charging of the firing circuit and neutron generator necessary for explosion), and the high-voltage battery was not charged (which controlled the firing capacitors).

The fusion-enhancing tritium reservoir was full and had not been put into the weapon’s primary. This would not have ignited the weapon’s fusion secondary stage, leading to a substantially lower primary yield.

A Conclusion?

Thanks to the quick thinking of pilot Walter Scott Tulloch and the bravery of his crew, the two nuclear bombs that fell to the ground did not detonate, averting what would have been a massive tragedy.

As we have seen, the failure of the bombs to explode was due to a series of fortunate accidents. The rotary safety switch was damaged, the arm-ready switch was in the safe position, the high-voltage battery was not activated, and the high-voltage battery was not charged.

These factors combined to prevent the firing circuit and neutron generator from charging, which in turn stopped the capacitors from firing and the fusion-enhancing tritium reservoir from igniting the weapon’s fusion secondary stage. All of these factors ultimately led to a much lower primary yield.

The Goldsboro Incident underscores the importance of safety protocols and rigorous testing in the handling and transporting of nuclear weapons. It also serves as a sobering reminder of the dangers of nuclear weapons and the need for global disarmament.

A memorial commemorating the Goldsboro Incident

A memorial commemorating the Goldsboro Incident

As we reflect on the Goldsboro crash, let us remember the bravery and heroism of the crew who risked their lives to prevent a catastrophe. And let us also commit ourselves to work towards a world free from the threat of nuclear weapons, where incidents like Goldsboro will become a thing of the past.

By learning from the lessons of Goldsboro and working towards a safer and more peaceful world, we can honor the sacrifices of those who risked their lives on that fateful day and ensure that such an incident never happens again.

RIP Victims

Next, read about Operation Cherry Blossoms at Night: Japan’s Plan to Send the US Back to the Middle Ages. Then, about The Pigman of Northfield, The Horrifying Halloween Story

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Written By

Abin Tom Sebastian, also known as Mr. Morbid in the community, is an avid fan of the paranormal and the dark history of the world. He believes that sharing these stories and histories are essential for the future generations. For god forbid, we have seen that those who forget history are doomed to repeat it.

1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. Roger

    April 21, 2023 at 7:20 pm

    After just reading about aliens possibly shutting off nukes, mayhaps these happy accidents had a helping hand?

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