Revealed: the night America very nearly nuked itself

 

Only dumb luck saved America from a nightmare scenario in January 1961 when an Air Force B-52 carrying two nuclear bombs broke apart in flight dropping the weapons on farmland near the city of Goldsboro in North Carolina.

Both bombs had been knocked by the accident into “armed” mode ready to detonate as they fell from the sky.

Documents declassified by the National Security Archive this week leave little doubt as to how close America came to catastrophe.

“Multi-Megaton Bomb Was Virtually ‘Armed’ When It Crashed to Earth” the headline on the report reads. Just as chilling was an observation from the then US Secretary of Defence, Robert McNamara. “By the slightest margin of chance, literally the failure of two wires to cross, a nuclear explosion was averted,” he said.

“The impact of the aircraft break-up initiated the fusing sequence for both bombs,” the summary of the documents said.

Less dangerous was the first bomb. The deployment of its parachute slowed the rate of fall and the loss of a safety pin cut off power from its internal generator.

The second bomb fell freely and, according to the details in the report, cycled through six of the seven steps to final detonation. Only damaged wiring stopped it from going off.

Nor were these small bombs. The plane, which suffered a right wing failure as it flew through the night sky, was carrying two MK39s, each weighing 10,000 pounds with an explosive yield of 3.8 megatons.

That compares with yields of 0.01 and 0.02 megatons for the bombs dropped respectively on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945.

The crash of the bomber was seen by a local farmer. “I heard the whine of an airplane about to land, then there was a big explosion.

“It almost knocked me out of bed. I got up and ran to the window and saw my whole field on fire.”

But he can have had no idea how much graver the events of that night might have been. The full scope of the near-calamity was first revealed in the book Command and Control by Eric Schlosser released last year.

Just how many other such accidents involving thermonuclear payloads have happened over the decades isn’t clear but there are at least 21 declassified reports of airborne incidents involving nuclear bombs between 1950 and 1968.

Even just two months after the Goldsboro event another B-52 crashed in the California desert with two nuclear weapons on board. Safety devices prevented them from detonating.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA celebration of British elections
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West, performing in New York last week, has been the subject of controversy as rock's traditional headline slot at Glastonbury is lost once again
music
Arts and Entertainment
The Ridiculous Six has been produced by Adam Sandler, who also stars in it
filmNew controversy after nine Native American actors walked off set
Life and Style
Google celebrates Bartolomeo Cristofori's 360th birthday
techGoogle Doodle to the rescue
Life and Style
Drinking - often heavily - is a running theme throughout HBO's Game of Thrones adaptation
food + drink
News
people
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Senior Digital Marketing Consultant

£28000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Senior Digital Marketing Cons...

Recruitment Genius: Assistant Stores Keeper

£16640 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An Assistant Stores Keeper is r...

Recruitment Genius: Claims Administrator

£16000 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an excellent opportunit...

Recruitment Genius: Software Developer - C# / ASP.NET / SQL

£17000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Developer required to join a bu...

Day In a Page

Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

China's influence on fashion

At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

Rainbow shades

It's all bright on the night
'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
Welcome to the world of Megagames

Welcome to the world of Megagames

300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

Vince Cable exclusive interview

Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
Russell Brand's interview with Ed Miliband has got everyone talking about The Trews

Everyone is talking about The Trews

Russell Brand's 'true news' videos attract millions of viewers. But today's 'Milibrand' interview introduced his resolutely amateurish style to a whole new crowd
Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

It's time for my close-up

Meet the man who films great whites for a living