A single switch behind the Goldsboro Nuclear incident

With decades between the Goldsboro B-52 crash and the release on what really happened, it's a blessing both North Carolina and the entire East Coast were spared from destruction.

On January 24, 1961, just three days after John F. Kennedy gave his inaugural address as president, a B-52 Stratofortress stationed at Seymour Johnson Air Force Base met with a tanker for aerial refueling. During this time, the tanker crew noticed a fuel leak in the right wing and notified aircraft commander Major Walter Scott Tulloch. While it was a routine refueling, something was different. The B-52 was carrying two 3-4 Megaton Mark 39 nuclear bombs that possessed 260 times the destruction power of the Hiroshima atomic bomb. Advised to assume a holding pattern, the refueling ended, ground control was notified, and the B-52 waited mid-air for all fuel to be consumed.

By the time the aircraft reached its assigned position, the leak had worsened and some 37,000 tons of fuel were being lost per minute. The pilot and crew were directed to immediately head back to Seymour Johnson Air Force Base. As the plane descended 10,000 feet over cotton fields and farmland in Faro, the pilots lost control and the crew ejected at 9,000 feet. Five men landed safely, one bailed but did not survive the landing, and two died in the crash.

The aircraft broke apart at around 1,000-2,000 feet, releasing the two nuclear bombs on board. On one of the bombs, three of the four arming mechanisms deployed, including a parachute which allowed the bomb to safely land upright.

The other bomb was a different story. At 700 mph it plummeted to the ground. While partially armed on the aircraft, an unclosed high voltage switch prevented the bomb from fully arming. The first bomb was an easy recovery. Lt. Jack Revelle was assigned as the bomb disposal expert and confirmed the arm/safe switch was in the safe position. The tail end of the second bomb was discovered 20 feet in the ground, and uncontrollable groundwater flooding prevented the full recovery.

After the event, the Pentagon assured the bombs were fully armed, and thus, safe. Throughout the years, speculation grew on just how narrow the Goldsboro event was. It wasn't until 2013 under the Freedom of Information act a 1969 formerly classified document by Parker F Jones revealed the truth. Eight years after the incident, Jones titled his rebuttal document, "How I learned to Mistrust the H-Bomb," a nod to Stanley Kubrich's 1964 film "Dr. Strangelove or : How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb."

As a senior supervisor responsible for the mechanical safety of nuclear weapons at Sandia National Laboratory, Jones' document parallels a study by physicist Dr. Ralph Lapp who was in charge of the Manhattan Project that developed the first nuclear bombs. Lapp writes that Goldsboro was an "incident" and "five of the six interlocks had been set off by the fall...only a single switch prevented the 24 megaton bomb from detonating and spreading fire and destruction over a wide area."

Jones provides his response in the right side of the document stating, "'Twas an accident, not an incident." In regards to the safety switch, "Two rendered ineffective by aircraft breakup."

On the second page, Jones reports his own summary of the incident and sees Goldsboro as an error in engineering rather than an accident.

"The MK 39 Mod 2 bomb did not posses adequate safety for the airborne alert role in the B-52...When the B-52 disintegrates in the air, it is likely to release the bombs in a near normal fashion."

The document was obtained by investigative journalist Eric Schlosser and published in the Guardian on September 20, 2013. It took 52 years for the real truth behind the devastating crash to be revealed, while throughout that time the U.S. government ensured their nuclear arsenals posed no safety threat to the general public.

Today, the history of the Goldsboro event merely exists on paper other than a small marker in Eureka which reads, "Nuclear Mishap." North Carolina author and historian Joe Sledge notes the long dispute but also regards the true victims, "The event that happened in Faro is more than an empty piece of field and a roadside marker. It is a reminder of what men and women did day and night in service and need for their nation. For three of the crew, Frank Barnish, Eugene Richards, and Gene Shelton, they would return to the earth one last time, never to leave it again. Their lives and deeds should be held in high regard."

While that same high regard was simultaneously displayed and hidden beneath the pages of a classified document, Schlosser concluded in his book on the nuclear arms race, "Command and Control," that between 1950 to 1968, 700 accidents and incidents involving 1,250 nuclear weapons occurred.

Had the information been made public earlier, there's no concrete yes or no on if it would have changed anything. The Goldsboro incident was indeed tragic. As Jones said in his report, "The unalterable conclusion is that only effective safing device during airborne alert was the ready-safe switch....One simple, dynamo-technology, low voltage switch stood between the United States and a major catastrophe!" 

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