September 20, 2013

When the US Air Force nearly nuked North Carolina.

This happened in 1961, according to a long-secret document published today:
[T]wo Mark 39 hydrogen bombs... fell to earth after a B-52 bomber broke up in mid-air, and one of the devices behaved precisely as a nuclear weapon was designed to behave in warfare: its parachute opened, its trigger mechanisms engaged, and only one low-voltage switch prevented untold carnage.

Each bomb carried a payload of 4 megatons – the equivalent of 4 million tons of TNT explosive. Had the device detonated, lethal fallout could have been deposited over Washington, Baltimore, Philadelphia and as far north as New York city – putting millions of lives at risk.
I'd never heard about that incident until just now. That happened when I was 10, and I lived in northern Delaware, within that fallout zone.

29 comments:

Lord Ben said...

I hear a lot of horror stories about fallout but we tested a LOT of bombs back then too. So what's the reality of the dangers of one bomb's fallout?

Hagar said...

In 1961 the New Mexico Air National Guard also shot down an Air Fotce B-52 over Albuquerque (then a SAC base), and the pilots certainly were anxious to get that plane far away from the city before it crashed.

ddh said...

Despite this news report, that a bomb nearly went off near Goldsboro, NC, has been known for several decades--I think as far back as the 1970s. I remember the story from back then.

cold pizza said...

We are ALWAYS one low-voltage switch away from either destruction or complete chaos. It's the world we live in. -CP

David said...

This is old news. Not sure if the fail safe was as precarious as the article suggests. Beyond that doubtful detail, there is nothing in the article that was not previously known. Nevertheless, the whole idea is not to drop them in the first place. We did so on several occasions, but due to luck or good failsafe none exploded.

The plane had a crew of 8. Five ejected and survived. One ejected but was killed, and two remained with the plane and died in the crash.

Why is this being publicized at this time?

Oh, a new book? Ok.

T J Sawyer said...

The North Carolina incident was extensively discussed in the 2011 book, "15 minutes," about SAC. I was aware of it before that from other nuclear books although the specific number of safety devices remaining intact might have been news at that time.

Alex D. Novak said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Alex D. Novak said...

Weather has a lot to do with the spread of radioactive fallout danger: wind direction and speed, temperature and humidity affecting whether it falls quickly or spreads over long distances.

Little Boy, detonated over Hiroshima, killed more than 100,000 over four months with half in the first day from acute effects. It was 16 kilotons vs. 4 megatons (maybe 8 if one would would have set off the other). I don't know the difference in radiation types between uranium bombs and hydrogen.

North Carolina is quite removed even from D.C. with a lot of the radiation drifting and dispersing in the upper atmosphere.

St. George said...

There's a new book out about the US military's handling of nuclear weapons Command and Control".

And, apparently, up until the late 1950s, there were no "permissive action links" on US atomic weapons. These are security devices to prevent unauthorized detonations. For example, until 1958, US fighters in Turkey regularly sat on alert on airbase runways with only a single Turkish army guard (with an unloaded weapon) guarding the aircraft and/or there to prevent them from taking off. Mind you, these were aircraft armed with nuclear weapons. (This from the Eisenhower biography "Ike's Bluff".)

The missile gap race of the 1950s and 1960s that led to the mass production of nuclear weapons is oddly similar to Saddam Hussein's claims to have WMD. We knew the USSR had the bomb. We didn't know how many. We didn't know how many long-range bombers it had. We didn't know how many ICBMs it had.

As a consequences, our intelligence folks overestimated the USSR's numbers. For example, at one May Day parade, our diplomat counted x number of Soviet long-range bombers flying overhead. What he didn't know was that, the Russians were sending the same six (?) bombers in a loop around Moscow to make it look like they had an armada. Consequence: We overbuilt.

This, even though later U2 overflights of Russia in the mid-1950s revealed its limited first-strike ability. Meanwhile, the media and our government told Americans to beware of imminent Soviet surprise attack, causing paranoia. Eisenhower knew the Russians had limited first-strike capacity, yet did nothing to calm Americans' fears.

Eisenhower often said he dreaded the thought of America having a president who did not know the military establishment as well as he did.

Bob Ellison said...

The long-secret document looks weird, like a UFO sighting. I doubt it.

SJ said...

@Lord Ben,

there was a movie filmed in the 1950s. The outdoor filming was done 100 miles downwind from a set of nuclear tests.

The movie flopped badly (for reasons not related to nuclear testing).

A disproportionately high number of people who worked on that film later developed cancer.

See wiki on "The Conqueror".

tmitsss said...

This was only three years after they bombed Mars Bluff SC. What did they have against the South

FleetUSA said...

And why do we learn about this from The Guardian, a London newspaper?

Or maybe papers around the world are using their internet capability and good writing ability to "invade" other countries.

LarsPorsena said...

Old news..retread story.

Cedarford said...

AS I understand it, from AF days, a nuke is like many weapons..the trigger part of the thermonuclear fuze is worthless in initiating detonation unless the trigger is armed. And the two H-Bombs were never armed.

In a sense, it is like having a rifle with the safety on. You can pull the trigger, jar the trigger by impact, several times. A thousand times. But nothing can happen because the safety is on, so the gun is not armed to fire. And safeties on firearms WORK. Each and everytime. They positively block the trigger.

What alarmed the AF was that the ejected bombs did have elements of the trigger circuit close contacts from bad design..an accelerometer set off from the shock of the plane breakup energized the part of the circuit on one bomb that the bombs altimeter sensor then correctly deployed the parachute at one height and closed another contact when the bomb reached optimum detonation height. However, other contacts needed to be closed to complete the trigger circuit..most important the sections and contacts for PAL.

What alarmed not just the AF and SAC (Strategic Air Command) but the Atomic Energy Commission and Leaders in DC inc. the President..was on discovery that impact had bypassed the Permissive Action Link (PAL) subcircuit and closed that contact link and had not destroyed the circuit from improper activation and had not disabled other components (detonators, etc.) as it should have from tampering or inputting wrong codes that only the President or designee can release.

So it was a mess and required a total redesign and heads apparantly did roll at Los Almos and LIvermore.

But the "safety" was still on, so the trigger could not function. Only the pilot and co-pilot could unlock and activate the arming circuit section - and that required receipt of command authorization and a set of careful procedures..which were never started. And fortunately, from two world wars, the basic arming mechanism on bombs and shells is something designed to only "fail safe" (no pun intended) on unintended impact or near other detonations..and designed such that even an E-2 American grunt or Soviet artillery loader after a week of basic training and a week of ordnance training cannot mess up on.

Redundancies meant little actual risk. But the failures were unacceptable.

Of course, one of our H-Bombs is still missing. From 1958, jettisoned on SAC orders after a bomber had a mid-air collision with a US fighter plane, and the damaged bomber could not land without crashing if the bomb was still on board the crippled bomber. . Believed to be safely entombed under 20-40 feet of ocean mud off Savannah Georgia. 55 years of searching never found it or any trace of it. It's inert, but it still has its plutonium and HEU fissile materials stored in the case.

Hagar said...

and this

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1966_Palomares_B-52_crash

Robert Cook said...

Of course, Fukushima nuclear plant in Japan is pouring millions of gallons of highly radioactive water into the Pacific Ocean nonstop, and there's a very high chance of even further imminent catastrophe.

"We don't need no steenking nuclear bombs (to kill the world)!"

Hagar said...

The 1961 incident when NMANG shot down a B-52 apparently was a training exercise mishap, and the B-52 was not carrying a bomb. However, the Air Guard was told to also stop making passes at incoming airliners, as they had been wont to do.

And there is another story about a B-52 dropping a nuclear device somewhere on the southeast mesa back in the -50's, which is a little unsettling considering the comments above above the shock of impact overriding the failsafe trigger mechanisms.

madAsHell said...

When I worked with the B83, we had PAL, PVET, UST and two switches in the cockpit. It was a minor miracle to get the damned thing armed, but that was the 1980's. I'm not familiar with the Mark-39.

I was told that we actually shared the safeguards with the Russians.

Paddy O said...



Disasters are all terrible, but I suspect this one would have radically reshaped history.

Would we have blamed the Soviets?

Would we have escalated involvement in Vietnam?

Everything would have changed, but how?

Michael K said...

One comment to the article, by a woman of course, says we should get rid of all our nuclear weapons so as to avoid an accident. I'll bet she voted for Obama if she is an American (and not institutionalized). Iran would be pleased.

veni vidi vici said...

Here's where the old cliche is perfectly applicable:

"Oh, the humanity!"

heyboom said...

I'm not sure about nuclear technology in 1961, but when I worked with nuclear missiles in the late 70's the warheads were designed to only produce a nuclear yield when every pre-condition was met. You could get a small conventional detonation from the explosives in the device, but it took a much more complex sequence of events in order to be able to get a nuclear explosion.

openidname said...

Switch designed to keep bomb from blowing up successfully keeps bomb from blowing up.

Otherwise, what Cedarford said.

poppa india said...

I had a long term friend (since deceased) who was an AF nuke weapon tech in the late 50's and early 60's. He told me of an unarmed weapon inadvertently dropped from a B-58 which was moving it from one base to another. It seems the co-pilot wanted to see "what one of them looks like" and crawled aft just as the plane hit an air bump. His first mistake was grabbing a cable to steady himself, which happened to be the auxiliary bomb bay door release, which opened the door and dropped the bomb. His second mistake, I was told, was not jumping out after it. The device landed on a farmer's chicken coop, which set him up financially for the rest of his life. My friend's name was on the paperwork as the maintenance tech, so his barracks was invaded by a arm-waving posse of colonels and generals in the middle of the night. He was wakened and questioned by a frantic general for all kinds of info. My friend's first thought was it was a security drill to see if he would divulge secret stuff w/o authorization, till the base commander screamed "For God's sake Smith, tell him what he wants to know!" Happily there was no serious damage more than a couple of ruined careers and what could have been a dangerous event turned out to seem comical a few decades later.

ken in sc said...

When I was a kid, in the 50s, I knew about the Russian bombs. My home was about 80 miles away from Columbus AFB, which was a SAC base in those days. I had seen on TV that a hydrogen bomb could set houses on fire 80 miles away from the blast. Actually, we did drop some bombs close to Spain one time.

However, I was not so much afraid of nuclear bombs as I was of tornadoes. Bombs I knew about, intellectually, but tornadoes I had seen. I had nightmares about them.

The house next door to my grand mother had been blown away by a tornado and the survivors had rebuilt it under ground. I had sat on her porch and watched a funnel cloud march across the sky, but not touch down—by luck.

My dad used to take with him to deliver food, clothes, and bedding to people who had lost everything to a tornado. I will never forget that.

Fortunately, the Russian bomb never happened, however, we would have made do if it did.

Craig said...

I went to junior high and two years of senior high in a district with a dry dock designed for four nuclear powered submarines and a nuclear submarine base. We always assumed we'd be vaporized before getting news of an impending attack.

tmitsss said...

Poppa India your story sounds like it might be the Mars Bluff SC incident.

http://www.flocomuseum.org/artifacts/mysteries-at-the-museum/
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mars_Bluff%2C_South_Carolina

Your story might be what really happened rather than the official story


poppa india said...

tmitsss, that does pretty much sound like what happened. I heard the story 40+ years after, so some of the details could have been forgotten or misremembered.