January 24, 1961: A B-52 Stratofortress crashes. The plane was based out of Seymour Johnson Air Force Base in Goldsboro, North Carolina, USA. It was on a 24-hour Operation Coverall airborne alert mission on the Atlantic seaboard. During the Cold War, program first Single Integrated Operation Plan (SIOP) called for one third of the Strategic Air Command’s fleet of nuclear bombers to be airborne at all times. The idea was to have at least some of the planes in the air so the entire fleet could not be trapped on the ground and they would be able to fly directly to targets if needed.
On this day, near midnight, the B-52G rendezvoused with a tanker for mid-air refueling. The tanker crew noticed a leak in the right wing and aborted the refueling. They notified the bomber commander, Major Walter Tulloch, and ground control was also informed. The aircraft was told to assume a holding pattern off the coast until most of the fuel was consumed. By the time the plane reached the desired position, the pilot reported the leak had worsened and 37,000 pounds of fuel had been lost in three minutes. The plane was immediately instructed to return and land at Seymour Johnson Air Force Base.
The crew descended to 10,000 feet on its approach to land when the pilots were no longer able to keep control of the plane. The crew was ordered to eject, which they did at 9,000 feet. Five men ejected and landed safely. Another man ejected but died, and two more men died in the crash. The parachuting crew last witnessed the plane intact with its payload – two Mark 39 nuclear bombs. The wreckage covered a 2 square mile area of tobacco and cotton farmland about 12 miles north of Goldsboro. Somewhere between 10,000 and 2,000 feet of altitude, the nuclear bombs separated from the aircraft as it broke up. Three of the four arming mechanisms on one of the bombs activated. The parachute deployed and allowed the bomb to hit the ground with little damage.
The bomb was located intact and standing upright. Its parachute had been caught in a tree. The bomb disposal expert responsible for retrieving the bomb noted the arm/safe switch was still in the safe position although it had gone through the rest of the arming sequence. At the time, the US government said that two of the arming mechanisms had not deployed and the bomb had no chance of exploding. This was a bit of an overstatement and only this last step had remained before detonation would have taken place. The second bomb plunged into a muddy field at a speed of about 700 mph and disintegrated without detonation of its conventional explosives. The tail was found about 20 feet below ground. It was sheer luck the bomb did not detonate.
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.’ – Jack ReVelle, bomb disposal expert
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. – Jack ReVelle
One simple, dynamo-technology, low voltage switch stood between the United States and a major catastrophe. – Parker F Jones
The MK 39 Mod 2 bomb did not possess adequate safety for the airborne alert role in the B-52. – Parker F Jones
Also on this day: Badminton – In 1900, the Newcastle Badminton Club opened, the oldest such club in England.
Be Prepared – In 1907, the Boy Scouts were begun by Robert Baden-Powell.
“Gold! Gold! Gold from the American River” – In 1848, James W. Marshall spies gold in the American River, sparking the California Gold Rush.
Never Surrender – In 1972, Shōichi Yokoi was found.
Little Boot is Booted Out – In 41, Caligula was assassinated.