1961 Goldsboro B-52 crash

Coordinates: 35°29′35″N 77°51′33″W / 35.493041°N 77.859262°W / 35.493041; -77.859262
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1961 Goldsboro B-52 crash
One of the Mk 39 nuclear weapons at Goldsboro, largely intact, with its parachute still attached
Date24 January 1961
SummaryStructural failure
SiteFaro, Nahunta Township, Wayne County, 12 miles (19 km) north of Goldsboro, North Carolina
35°29′35″N 77°51′33″W / 35.493041°N 77.859262°W / 35.493041; -77.859262[1]
Aircraft typeB-52G
OperatorStrategic Air Command, United States Air Force
Flight originSeymour Johnson Air Force Base
DestinationSeymour Johnson Air Force Base

The 1961 Goldsboro B-52 crash was an accident that occurred near Goldsboro, North Carolina, United States, on 24 January 1961. A Boeing B-52 Stratofortress carrying two 3–4-megaton Mark 39 nuclear bombs broke up in mid-air, dropping its nuclear payload in the process.[2] The pilot in command, Walter Scott Tulloch, ordered the crew to eject at 9,000 ft (2,700 m). Five crewmen 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] Information declassified in 2013 showed that one of the bombs came close to detonating, with three of the four required triggering mechanisms having activated.[4]


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 23–24 January 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 (grandfather of actress Elizabeth Tulloch), that his B-52 had a fuel leak in the right wing. The refueling was aborted, and ground control was notified of the problem. The B-52 was directed to assume a holding pattern off the coast until the majority of fuel was consumed. However, when it 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 the aircraft descended through 10,000 feet (3,000 m) on its approach to the airfield, the pilots were no longer able to keep it in stable descent and lost control. The pilot in command ordered the crew to abandon the aircraft, which they did at 9,000 feet (2,700 m). Five men landed safely after ejecting or bailing out through a hatch, one did not survive his parachute landing, and two died in the crash.[3] The third pilot of the bomber, Lt. Adam Mattocks, is the only person known to have successfully bailed out of the top hatch of a B-52 without an ejection seat.[5] The crew's final view of the aircraft was in an intact state with its payload of two Mark 39 thermonuclear bombs still on board, each with yields of between 2 and 4 megatons;[a] however, the bombs separated from the gyrating aircraft as it broke up between 1,000 and 2,000 feet (300 and 610 m).

The aircraft wreckage covered a 2-square-mile (5.2 km2) area of tobacco and cotton farmland at Faro, about 12 miles (19 km) north of Goldsboro.[7] Three of the four arming mechanisms on one of the bombs activated after it separated, causing it to execute several of the steps needed to arm itself, such as charging the firing capacitors and deploying a 100-foot-diameter (30 m) parachute.

Bomb recovery[edit]

EOD personnel work to recover the buried Mk. 39 thermonuclear bomb that fell into a Faro, North Carolina field in 1961.
Air Force personnel working in an underground pit to recover parts of the MK-39 nuclear bomb

Bomb that descended by parachute[edit]

The first bomb that descended by parachute was found intact and standing upright as a result of its parachute being caught in a tree.[citation needed] Lt. Jack ReVelle,[8] the explosive ordnance disposal (EOD) officer responsible for disarming and securing the bombs from the crashed aircraft, stated that the arm/safe switch was still in the safe position, although it had completed the rest of the arming sequence.[9][10] 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 stated that the bomb was unarmed and could not explode.[11]

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][11] In 2013, information released as a result of a Freedom of Information Act request confirmed that a single switch out of four (not six) prevented detonation.[12][b][4]

Bomb that fell into a field[edit]

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.[13] Although the bomb was partially armed when it left the aircraft, an unclosed high-voltage switch had prevented it from fully arming.[9] In 2013, ReVelle recalled the moment the second bomb's switch was found:[14] "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.'"[15]

Excavation of the second bomb was eventually abandoned as a result of uncontrollable ground-water flooding. Most of the thermonuclear stage of the bomb was left in place, but the "pit", or core, containing uranium and plutonium which is needed to trigger a nuclear explosion was removed.[14] The United States Army Corps of Engineers purchased a 400-foot (120 m) diameter circular easement over the buried component.[16][17] The site of the easement, at 35°29′34″N 77°51′31.2″W / 35.49278°N 77.858667°W / 35.49278; -77.858667, is clearly visible as a circle of trees in the middle of a plowed field on Google Earth. The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill determined the buried depth of the secondary component to be 180 ± 10 feet (55 ± 3 m).[13]

Consequences to B-52 design[edit]

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 in 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.[18]

Later analysis of weapons recovery[edit]

Lt. Jack ReVelle, the bomb disposal expert responsible for disarming the device, determined that the ARM/SAFE switch of the bomb which was hanging from a tree was in the SAFE position.[10] The second bomb did have the ARM/SAFE switch in the arm position but was damaged as it fell into a muddy meadow. ReVelle said the yield of each bomb was more than 250 times the destructive power of the Hiroshima bomb, large enough to create a 100% kill zone within a radius of 8.5 miles (13.7 km).[14]

In a now-declassified 1969 report, titled "Goldsboro Revisited", written by Parker F. Jones, a supervisor of nuclear safety at Sandia National Laboratories, Jones said that "one simple, dynamo-technology, low voltage switch stood between the United States and a major catastrophe", and concluded that "[t]he MK 39 Mod 2 bomb did not possess adequate safety for the airborne alert role in the B-52", and that it "seems credible" that a short circuit in the arm line during a mid-air breakup of the aircraft "could" have resulted in a nuclear explosion.[4] In contrast the Orange County Register said in 2012 (before the 2013 declassification) that the switch was set to "arm", and that despite decades of debate "No one will ever know" why the bomb failed to explode.[10]

In 2008 and in March 2013 (before the above-mentioned September 2013 declassification), Michael H. Maggelet and James C. Oskins, authors of Broken Arrow: The Declassified History of U.S. Nuclear Weapons Accidents, disputed the claim that a bomb was only one step away from detonation, citing a declassified report. They point out that the arm-ready switch was in the safe position, the high-voltage battery was not activated (which would preclude the charging of the firing circuit and neutron generator necessary for detonation), and the rotary safing switch was destroyed, preventing energisation of the X-Unit (which controlled the firing capacitors). The tritium reservoir used for fusion boosting was also full and had not been injected into the weapon primary. This would have resulted in a significantly reduced primary yield and would not have ignited the weapon's fusion secondary stage.[19][20][unreliable source?]


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".[21]

See also[edit]

Explanatory notes[edit]

  1. ^ Some sources like Ralph Lapp say they were 24 megatons. However, the Mark 39 "had a yield of 3.8 megatons", and "the United States has never deployed such a high-yield weapon", according to Hansen (1998).[6]
  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". Restoration Systems. 8 December 2010.
  2. ^ a b Schneider 1975, p. 28.
  3. ^ a b Sedgwick 2008.
  4. ^ a b c "Goldsboro revisited: account of hydrogen bomb near-disaster over North Carolina – declassified document". Guardian News. 20 September 2013. Retrieved 21 June 2020.
  5. ^ Yancy 1961.
  6. ^ Hansen 1990, p. 43.
  7. ^ AF Form 14 Report of Aircraft Accident (Report). 24 January 1961.
  8. ^ "The Man Who Disabled Two Hydrogen Bombs Dropped in North Carolina". storycorps.org. Retrieved 8 November 2020.
  9. ^ a b "Broken Arrow: Goldsboro, NC". Ibiblio.org. 4 December 2000. Archived from the original on 18 June 2005. Retrieved 14 June 2005.
  10. ^ a b c Sharon 2012.
  11. ^ a b Hanauer 1981, p. 28.
  12. ^ Pilkington 2013.
  13. ^ a b Hardy 2005, p. [page needed].
  14. ^ a b c Tuttle 2013.
  15. ^ Atchison 2017.
  16. ^ Deed Book 581, Wayne County (NC) Courthouse. 13 October 1962. pp. 89–91.
  17. ^ "Davis Family Easement". Ibiblio.org. 18 November 2000. Retrieved 12 September 2014.
  18. ^ Knaack 1988, pp. 276–277.
  19. ^ Michael H. Maggelet and James C. Oskins (5 March 2013). "Goldsboro – 19 Steps Away from Detonation". Retrieved 4 July 2017.
  20. ^ Michael H. Maggelet and James C. Oskins (2008). Broken Arrow – The Declassified History of U.S. Nuclear Weapons Accidents. ISBN 978-1435703612.
  21. ^ Shaffer 2012.

General and cited references[edit]

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]