Everything was on fire: how a B-52 with hydrogen bombs collapsed over the US

(ORDO NEWS) — On January 24, 1961, a B-52 bomber with two hydrogen bombs on board collapsed in the sky over Goldsboro. During the evacuation from the falling plane, three crew members were killed. The bombs detached from the hull and fell to the ground, but did not detonate. As it follows from documents declassified in 2013, in the event of an explosion, several cities on the East Coast of the United States could have suffered.

60 years ago, three days after the inauguration of President John F. Kennedy, a Mark 39 mod 2 hydrogen bomb dropped from a B-52 strategic bomber could have exploded over the United States. A major catastrophe was avoided only by sheer luck. Although the self-contained systems to prevent accidental explosions did not work, the explosion did not occur as the low voltage relay cut off power to the warhead.

On the night of January 24, 1961, a B-52 bomber patrolled the Atlantic coast in North Carolina as part of Operation Coverall to train strategic units of the US armed forces on high alert. The plane took off from Seymour Johnson Air Force Base near Goldsboro, and at about midnight approached the tanker for mid-air refueling. This was a common practice: during each mission, the rapidly consuming B-52 had to be refueled several times.

During the docking, the tanker crew informed B-52 commander Walter Scott Talloch about the fuel leak from the tank in the right wing.

Refueling was interrupted immediately. The incident was notified to the ground flight control center. Tallow was ordered to use fuel and await further instructions in the coastline area.

However, upon arrival at the specified target, the leak at the B-52 increased markedly: in three minutes the plane lost 17 tons of fuel. In this situation, Talloch was ordered to return to base immediately.

“Talloch straightened out the B-52 for a runway landing, but suddenly the plane began to deviate to the right towards the village of Faro. Then it began to fall apart, ”Joel Dobson elaborated in his book Broken Arrows of Goldsboro.

Having dropped to an altitude of 3 thousand meters, the pilots lost control of the aircraft. Tulloch ordered the crew to leave immediately. At an altitude of 2.7 thousand meters, five pilots ejected. Four of them successfully reached the ground. One died during a parachute landing, two more – as a result of a crash.

Another, African American Adam Mattocks, who occupied his usual place in the cockpit, climbed out through the window and jumped out of the B-52. Being a very religious person, he prayed a lot and eventually landed successfully. In front of the base guards, Seymour Mattox appeared in tattered uniforms and parachute in hand. The pilot announced that he had jumped from the crashed bomber. However, the guards did not believe Mattocks and arrested him for stealing a parachute.

Along the way, the first Mark 39 mod 2 nuclear bomb fell out of the bomber, and the second at an altitude of 610 meters.

Wreckage of B-52 was scattered in tobacco and cotton fields in a total area of ​​5.2 km², 19 km north of Goldsboro.

Billy Reeves, an eyewitness to the plane crash, who was then 17 years old, recalled in our time that immediately after the fall of the B-52, grass caught fire not far from his farm.

“Everything around was on fire. My mom was praying. She mistook it for the end of the world, ”Reeves told National Geographic.

An hour later, a military helicopter appeared over the area of ​​the incident. Through a loudspeaker, local residents were urged to urgently evacuate. However, people were not informed about the threat of an explosion.

The first bomb was found intact in an upright position: the parachute carrying it caught on a tree and got stuck. At that time, the Pentagon assured that two switching mechanisms did not work, and therefore the bomb allegedly could not explode.

The second bomb fell into the swamp and also did not detonate, falling apart. It was not possible to get the entire set of fragments due to groundwater: a fragment of a thermonuclear stage containing uranium and plutonium remained in the ground. The bomb burial site was acquired and securely fenced off by the military. According to the conclusion of Lieutenant Jack Revell, who was in charge of defusing the devices, the power of each of the lost B-52 bombs was more than 250 times higher than the power of the Baby bomb dropped on Hiroshima in 1945. According to the expert, the affected area in the event of an explosion would have a radius of 13.7 km, greatly changing the eastern part of North Carolina.

Major cities on the US East Coast, including New York and Washington, could also be hit.

In 2013, the US authorities declassified archival materials about the incident. Under the freedom of information law, the data was obtained by investigative journalist Eric Schlosser, who worked on the book. It turned out that back in 1969, the head of nuclear safety at National Laboratories, Sandia Parker Jones, prepared the report “Return to Goldsboro.” It was noted that, contrary to initial statements, the risk of a major disaster was very high. As reported in the report, three of the four fuses in the bomb dropped with a parachute went off. Two were incapacitated due to the breakdown of the aircraft, the third broke down at the time of the fall. When the bomb hit the ground, a start signal was sent, and the situation was saved only by the last fuse that went off.

“One simple low-voltage switch separated the United States from a major disaster,” Jones summed up.

At the same time, the expert stated that the Mark 39 mod 2 bombs, due to the peculiarities of their design, did not need to be used in aerial patrol operations, since in the event of a bomber crash, they could fall out and detonate.

At the same time, Michael Maggelet and James Oskins, in their book Broken Arrow: The Declassified History of Nuclear Accidents in the United States, challenged this claim, citing that the switch was in a safe position and the high-voltage battery was not activated. According to the authors, in view of the listed, as well as other factors, even in the event of an explosion, the power of the bomb would be significantly less than the declared one.

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