How a Simple Error Prevented a Thermonuclear Bomb From Exploding Over North Carolina

On the morning of Jan. 24, 1961, disaster struck as eight servicemen in a nuclear bomber were patrolling the skies over Goldsboro, North Carolina. They were an insurance policy against a surprise nuclear attack by Russia on the United States. The on-alert crew might survive the initial attack, the thinking went, to respond with two large nuclear weapons tucked into the belly of their B-52G Stratofortress jet. Each Mark 39 thermonuclear bomb was about 12 feet long, weighed more than 6,200 pounds, and could detonate with the energy of 3.8 million tons of TNT. Such a blast could kill everyone and everything within a diameter of about 17 miles. However, the jet and three of its crew members never returned to base, and neither did a nuclear core from one of the bombs. The plane broke up about 2,000 feet above the ground, nearly detonating one of the bombs in the process. Had the weapon exploded, the blast would have packed about 250 times the explosive power of the bomb dropped on Hiroshima. A major accident involving a nuclear weapon is called a “broken arrow,” and the US military has officially recognized 32 of them since 1950. A mysterious fuel leak, which the crew found out as a refueling plane approached, led to the broken arrow incident over North Carolina in 1961. While the US military recovered the entire Goldsboro bomb that hung from a tree, the second bomb wasn’t fully recovered. The Department of Defense has been granted a 400-foot easement at the spot where the bomb is located that doesn’t allow any building of any kind, but farming is ok. U.S. Defense strategists say there’s nothing to worry about because it doesn’t have all the components necessary to detonate.