four megaton H-bomb, like this test shot called Castle
Union, creates a fireball one mile wide and, according
to one expert, can have a 100% kill zone as far away as
seventeen miles. (USAF)
the U.S. Air Force Almost Nuked North Carolina
On the morning of January 23rd, 1961, First Lt.
Adam Mattocks climbed aboard his B-52G Stratofortress bomber
at Seymour Johnson Air Force Base in North Carolina. Mattocks,
under the command of Major W. S. Tulloch, was one of three pilots
that was assigned to take the plane on a routine training mission
that day. What would follow over the next twenty-four hours,
however, would be anything but routine. At the end Mattocks
would be the survivor of one of the most serious nuclear weapons
accidents ever and a large part of the great state of North
Carolina would have come unbelievably close to being turned
into a smoldering, burned out, radiation-poisoned, death zone.
The B-52 was flying that day as part of Operation
Coverall, an airborne alert training mission on the Atlantic
seaboard involving a large portion of the Strategic Air Command's
fleet of nuclear bombers. The mission was designed to practice
keeping as many bombers in the air as possible on a continual
basis. This was so that during an actual nuclear threat they
would not be caught on the ground by a Soviet atomic strike.
Because the planes needed to keep flying hour-after-hour without
landing, they were being refueled in the air.
At just after midnight on the 24th, a KC-135 tanker
rendezvoused with Mattock's B-52 to refuel it. This involved
a boom being lowered from the rear of the tanker to a receptacle
located on the top of the B-52 just to the rear of the cockpit.
Before the refueling could start, however, the boom operator
noticed a stream of pink liquid spewing from the B-52's right
wing: a fuel leak. After hearing this information, SAC headquarters
ordered Mattocks' bomber into a holding pattern over the Atlantic
Ocean where it would wait until it had lost enough fuel to attempt
a safe landing back at base.
B-52 bomber similar to the one that broke up over North
Carolina on January 24th, 1961. (USAF)
The leak worsened, however, and it soon became
apparent that the Stratofortress needed to land immediately.
Under orders, the crew turned the bomber westward with the intention
of landing back at Seymour Johnson, located near Goldsboro,
The B-52G they were flying that night was the
first model of the plane that used integral fuel tanks in the
wings. This greatly increased the range of the plane, but put
a huge stress on the wing structure. As the plane descended
to 10,000 feet approaching the airbase, the right wing gave
out completely and the plane broke up in mid-air. The crew tried
to bail out. Of the eight men onboard, five survived. Mattock
got out by climbing out of the B-52's top hatch and jumping
with his parachute. He was the only man ever to pull off that
stunt without an ejection seat.
Four Megaton Bombs
The whole incident might have been simply an unfortunate,
tragic, but not uncommon training accident if it hadn't been
for what the B-52G had been carrying: Two Mark 39 nuclear bombs
with a combined yield of around 8 megatons: the equivalent of
8 million tons of TNT that had more power than 500 Hiroshima-type
bombs put together.
The bombs separated from the remains of the aircraft
and plummeted toward the ground landing about 12 miles north
of the city of Goldsboro in some farm fields. According to official
word at the time, the devices were unarmed and there was never
any danger of accidental detonation.
In reality, the situation was quite a bit more
second H-bomb landed intact after its parachute deployed
as part of its arming sequence. (USAF)
One of the bombs simply fell straight down. Given
its streamlined casing, it is estimated it hit the ground at
nearly 700 miles an hour. The bomb disintegrated, driving itself
many yards into the earth. Its tail was found 20 feet below
the surface. This sounds terribly dangerous, but the truth is
that despite the tremendous shock, none of the conventional
explosives designed to trigger the nuclear explosion went off.
What happened with the second bomb, however was
a lot more scary.
Large thermonuclear bombs, when dropped from
an aircraft, require a parachute to retard, or slow, the bomb's
fall so that the aircraft has sufficient time to get out of
the blast zone. The parachute will not deploy on a fully-unarmed
bomb, as in the case of the first Mark 39 mentioned above.
On the second bomb, however, the retardation parachute
did deploy, indicating that the bomb went through at least part
of its arming sequence. The device's parachute snagged on a
tree and this left the bomb hanging with just the bottom 18
inches of the nose buried in the ground. Otherwise it was completely
Obviously, since the bomb didn't detonate, it
hadn't been completely armed. The fact that the bomb had even
partly gone through its arming procedure, however, was alarming
to USAF officials and the details of what actually happened
inside the nuclear device became a closely-guarded secret.
Megaton Blast Effects
What would have happened to North Carolina if
the second bomb had detonated is well-known from extensive tests
performed in the Pacific in previous decades. The explosion
from a four megaton device would have created a fireball over
a mile in diameter. With a temperature of 20 million degrees
fahrenheit, everything inside would have been vaporized. Heat
and a titanic shock wave would have killed everyone out to a
distance of two and a half miles from ground zero within seconds.
The small towns of Faro and Eureka would simply have ceased
to exist as a blast of pressurized air traveling nearly at the
speed of sound flattened even reinforced concrete and steel
The heat would have been so intense that even
at the outskirts of Goldsboro, seven miles away, the sheet metal
on the exterior of vehicles would have melted. The whole of
the town of Goldsboro would have been subjected to intense thermal
radiation that would have ignited all easily-flammable materials
including wood, paper, cloth, leaves, gasoline and heating fuel.
As these individual fires merged, an effect called a firestorm
would have occurred. Anybody seeking shelter in a basement would
most likely been roasted alive by the intense heat or suffocated
as the flames consumed all of the oxygen in the air. Anyone
within fourteen miles who was exposed to the blast would have
sustained third degree burns. It is likely that very few people
in the city would have survived. One expert estimated that the
bomb was large enough to have a 100% kill zone within seventeen
miles of the detonation point, an area that completely enveloped
the Goldsboro and its suburbs. By some estimates, 60,000 would
have died from the bomb in the vicinity of Goldsboro.
Lt. Jack Revelle, the bomb disposal expert responsible
for disarming the devices, once said, "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." While North Carolina being turned into
an arm of the Atlantic Ocean seems a bit of an exaggeration,
there is no doubt that the entire United States East coast would
have been under threat from the explosion's fallout.
About Those "Nuclear Codes?"
Permissive Action Link (PAL) is a security system
designed so that a nuclear warhead cannot be detonated
without presidential authorization. The code (usually
four digits) is used to prevent renegade military personnel,
or terrorists who have stolen a bomb, from detonating
it. The warheads are also designed so they cannot be "hotwired"
bypassing the PAL. If the bomb is tampered with, it is
disabled. For security reasons the methods used to disable
it are unknown, but it is speculated that one method is
a small charge that can be set off near the bomb's nuclear
core damaging it. After that, the bomb could not be used
without being rebuilt, though the nuclear material could
a PAL system is not designed to prevent an explosion due
to an accident, depending on its design it might create
another layer of protection in that scenario. Unfortunately,
the MK-39 involved in the Goldsboro incident was designed
and built long before PALs were engineered into nuclear
warheads and they were not a factor in the accident.
Radiation from a nuclear blast comes in two forms.
First is the "flash" that comes directly from the bomb when
it detonates. Then, in the period after the actual explosion,
"fall out" can blanket the surrounding area. Fall out occurs
when the radioactive residue which is propelled up into the
atmosphere by the explosion "falls out" of the sky down to earth
in the days and weeks following the detonation. These two sources
of radiation can be as deadly as the heat and blast effects
from the explosion itself. At Hiroshima in World War II it is
estimated that over half the people who died weren't killed
by the blast effects, but succumbed to radiation sickness in
the hours, weeks or months following the dropping of the bomb.
Fallout from a blast near Goldsboro could have
blanketed much of the East Coast with deadly effects depending
on the wind and weather conditions following the detonation.
It is estimated that the cloud could have reached as far as
Washington, Baltimore, Philadelphia and even New York City.
Close Did It Come To Detonation?
Although the basic information of what happened
over Goldsboro in 1961 has been known for decades, some of the
most important (and scary) details became public only recently.
Investigative journalist Eric Schlosser, while researching his
book Command and Control, was able to obtain a classified
report on the incident under the Freedom of Information Act.
The account was written by Parker F Jones for the U.S. government
eight years after the incident. Jones, a senior engineer in
the Sandia National Laboratories in Albuquerque, N.M, was a
leading expert on atomic weapons safety and his department was
in charge of the mechanical aspects of nuclear devices. He entitled
his work Goldsboro Revisited or: How I learned to Mistrust
the H-Bomb (a spoof on Stanley Kubrick's satirical film
title Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying
and Love the Bomb). Jones found that on the second bomb
three of the four safety systems that were designed into it
to keep it from detonating accidentally failed. The fourth,
a simple, low-voltage switch, was all that stopped Armageddon
from happening in North Carolina that day.
Parker found that the switch that prevented detonation
could have easily been shorted by an electrical jolt, leading
to an accidental detonation. "It would have been bad news -
in spades," he wrote in his report. When the bomb touched down,
a firing signal was sent to the nuclear core of the device,
and it was only this single switch that prevented catastrophe.
"The MK 39 Mod 2 bomb did not possess adequate safety for the
airborne alert role in the B-52," Jones concluded.
Perhaps as terrifying as this is what they found
when they excavated the first bomb from the hole that it had
dug for itself in the farmer's field. The bomb went so far into
the ground, and the water table was so high, that some parts
of the device were never recovered. The best the Army Corps
of Engineers could do was buy an easement from the farmer that
forbids digging deeper than five feet. To this day, the North
Carolina government continues to test the area for signs of
the buried bomb the arm/safe switch was found to be in
the armed position. (USAF)
One part that was found, however, was the same
low-voltage switch that had prevented detonation in the second
bomb. ReVelle, who was in charge of the recovery, recalled the
moment when the switch was located. "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."
ReVelle later remarked on the second bomb, "How close was it
to exploding? My opinion is damn close."
The same switch that prevented detonation on the
second bomb actually failed on the first bomb. Therefore it
isn't surprising Jones reached the conclusion on his report
that on that day just "one simple, dynamo-technology, low voltage
switch stood between the United States and a major catastrophe."
Copyright Lee Krystek
2013. All Rights Reserved.