1961 Goldsboro B-52 crash

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1961 Goldsboro B-52 crash
Goldsboro Mk 39 Bomb 1-close-up.jpeg
One of the Mk 39 nuclear weapons at Goldsboro, largely intact, with its parachute still attached.
Accident summary
Date January 24, 1961
Summary Structural failure
Site Faro, Nahunta Township, Wayne County, 12 miles (19 km) north of Goldsboro, North Carolina
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Crew 8
Fatalities 3
Survivors 5
Aircraft type B-52G
Operator Strategic Air Command, United States Air Force
Registration 58-0187
Flight origin Seymour Johnson Air Force Base
Destination Seymour Johnson Air Force Base

The 1961 Goldsboro B-52 crash was an accident that occurred in Goldsboro, North Carolina, on January 24, 1961. A B-52 Stratofortress carrying two Mark 39 nuclear bombs broke up in mid-air, dropping its nuclear payload in the process.[2] 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.[3] 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.


1961 Goldsboro B-52 crash is located in North Carolina
Accident scene
Accident scene
Seymour Johnson AFB
Seymour Johnson AFB
North Carolina

The aircraft, a B-52G, was based at Seymour Johnson Air Force Base in Goldsboro. Around midnight on January 23–24, 1961, the bomber had a rendezvous with a tanker for aerial refueling. During the hook-up, the tanker crew advised the B-52 aircraft commander, Major Walter Scott Tulloch, that his aircraft had a fuel leak in the right wing. The refueling was aborted, and ground control was notified of the problem. The aircraft was directed to assume a holding pattern off the coast until the majority of fuel was consumed. However, when the B-52 reached its assigned position, the pilot reported that the leak had worsened and that 37,000 pounds (17,000 kg) of fuel had been lost in three minutes. The aircraft was immediately directed to return and land at Seymour Johnson Air Force Base.

As it descended through 10,000 feet (3,000 m) on its approach to the airfield, the pilots were no longer able to keep the aircraft in trim and lost control of it. The pilot in command ordered the crew to eject, which they did at 9,000 feet (2,700 m). Five men ejected and landed safely. Another ejected but did not survive the landing, and two died in the crash.[3] The third pilot of the bomber, Lt. Adam Mattocks, is the only man known to have successfully bailed out of the top hatch of a B-52 without an ejection seat.[4][5] Although the crew last saw the aircraft intact with its payload of two Mark 39 hydrogen thermonuclear bombs on board, it broke apart before impact, releasing the bombs. The wreckage of the aircraft covered a 2-square-mile (5.2 km2) area of tobacco and cotton farmland at Faro, about 12 miles (19 km) north of Goldsboro.[6]

The two 3-4 megaton[lower-alpha 1] MK. 39 nuclear bombs separated from the gyrating aircraft as it broke up between 1,000 and 2,000 feet (300 and 610 m). Five of the six arming mechanisms on one of the bombs activated, causing it to execute many of the steps needed to arm itself, such as charging the firing capacitors and, critically, deployment of a 100-foot-diameter (30 m) retard parachute. The parachute allowed that bomb to hit the ground with little damage.

Bomb recovery

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

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.[8][9] 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.[10] 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.[2][10] In 2013, information released as a result of a Freedom of Information Act request confirmed a single switch out of four (not six) prevented detonation.[11][lower-alpha 2]

Air Force personnel working in an underground pit to recover parts of an MK-39 nuclear bomb.

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.[12][page needed] 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.[8] 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.'”[13]

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 .[13] The United States Army Corps of Engineers purchased a 400 feet (120 m) circular easement over the buried component.[14][15] 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).[12][page needed]

Consequences to B-52 design

Wet wings with integral fuel tanks considerably increased the fuel capacity of B-52G and H models, but were found to be experiencing 60% more stress during flight than did the wings of older models. Wings and other areas susceptible to fatigue were modified by 1964 under Boeing engineering change proposal ECP 1050. This was followed by a fuselage skin and longeron replacement (ECP 1185) in 1966, and the B-52 Stability Augmentation and Flight Control program (ECP 1195) in 1967.[16]

Later analysis of weapons recovery

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.”[9] 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.[13]

In 2013, investigative journalist Eric Schlosser published a book, Command and Control, in which he presented a declassified 1969 document obtained under the Freedom of Information Act. In the report, entitled "Goldsboro Revisited," written by Parker F. Jones, a supervisor of nuclear safety at Sandia National Laboratories, Jones says that "one simple, dynamo-technology, low voltage switch stood between the United States and a major catastrophe," and concludes that "The MK 39 Mod 2 bomb did not possess adequate safety for the airborne alert role in the B-52."[17]


Road marker in Eureka, NC, commemorating the 1961 B-52 crash.

In July 2012, the state of North Carolina erected a historical road marker in the town of Eureka, 3 miles (4.8 km) north of the crash site, commemorating the crash under the title "Nuclear Mishap."[18] The memorial does not list the names of the three aircrew who died in the accident: Sergeant Francis Roger Barnish (35), Major Eugene Holcombe Richards (42), and Major Eugene Shelton (41).

Nothing on the sign indicates that one of the two nuclear bombs released by the B-52 during the crash is still buried where it came to rest in 1961, nor does it state that one of the two bombs was in the armed position. This accident was one of the many that contributed to Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel's actions calling for "top-to-bottom" changes in a press release at the Pentagon on November 13, 2014.[citation needed]

Further reading

See also


  1. Some sources like Ralph Lapp say they were 24 megatons, but Hansen has stated that this is definitely an error, possibly caused by a decimal point being dropped.[7]
  2. There is some uncertainty as to which of the two bombs was closest to detonation, as different sources contradict one another over this point.


  1. "Whoops: Atomic Bomb dropped in Goldsboro, NC swamp". Retrieved 25 September 2013.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  2. 2.0 2.1 Schneider 1975, p. 28.
  3. 3.0 3.1 Sedgwick 2008.
  4. Mattocks 2011.
  5. Yancy 1961.
  6. "AF Form 14 Report of Aircraft Accident". 24 January 1961.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  7. Hansen 1990, p. 43.
  8. 8.0 8.1 "Nuclear Mishap in Goldsboro". Broken Arrow: Goldsboro, NC (2000). Archived from the original on 18 June 2005. Retrieved 14 June 2005.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  9. 9.0 9.1 Sharon 2012.
  10. 10.0 10.1 Hanauer 1981, p. 28.
  11. Pilkington 2013.
  12. 12.0 12.1 Hardy 2005.
  13. 13.0 13.1 13.2 Tuttle 2013.
  14. Deed Book 581, Wayne County (NC) Courthouse: 89–91. 13 October 1962. <templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  15. "Davis Family Easement". Ibiblio. Retrieved September 12, 2014.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  16. Knaack 1988, pp. 276-277.
  17. "Goldsboro Revisited," The Guardian, 20 September 2013, accessed 20 September 2013.
  18. Shaffer 2012.


External links