The North Carolina nuclear bomb incident occurred around midnight on January 23/24, 1961.
Despite the potential for catastrophe, not many people know about the event. But when documents from the incident were declassified in 2013 after a Freedom of Information request, we found out just how close the U.S. came to suffering a self-inflicted nuclear disaster.
North Carolina Nuclear Bomb incident
Residents of the small farming town of Faro, North Carolina (near Goldsboro) awoke one night in 1961 to the sound of a B-52 bomber accident.
The Boeing B-52 Stratofortress broke up in the air, releasing the two 3–4-megaton Mark 39 nuclear bombs it was carrying. But dropping a bomb like this is different from having it explode. The nuclear payloads inside the bomb casings are what would have caused the major disaster and they had extra fail safes.
The plane was meeting up with a tanker for in-air refueling when the crew saw that it had a fuel leak in the right wing. Eventually, the pilot lost control of the rapidly leaking aircraft and ordered the crew to eject at 9000 feet. Unfortunately, two died in the crash, unable to parachute out, and one man died during his parachute landing. Five men survived.
The bombs then broke free of the aircraft and broke up roughly 1-2000 feet above the ground, releasing their payloads (but not activating them).
A very close call
In order for the payloads to detonate, the four arming mechanisms would have needed to break. In 2013, the US government released records showing that 3 out of the 4 mechanisms did fail, and one bomb had started to arm itself and charge its firing capacitors.
Only one functioning arming mechanism stood between North Carolina and a nuclear disaster. No one knows why the fourth mechanism stood up to the damage and failed to cause the explosion.
The second bomb did not fully arm itself, but plunged into a muddy pit where it could not be recovered. All the military could do was remove the mechanism needed to detonate it and extract pieces of the bomb. Then, it covered the remaining parts with an easement, where it still sits today. – WTF fun facts