Wednesday, February 09, 2011

One Click Away


A Mark 39 hydrogen bomb rests beneath a tree in Faro, North Carolina after a 1961 B-52 crash. The other nuclear device aboard the aircraft slammed into the ground at more than 700 mph and broke apart. Some sources say the second weapon came dangerously close to detonating. Three of the bomber's eight crew members died in the crash (USAF photo via the Goldsboro, NC News-Argus. )


There was an unusual reunion Tuesday, at a firehouse in Faro, North Carolina.

The event brought together survivors of an almost-forgotten event in American military history. Fifty years and two weeks ago, a B-52 bomber was attempting an emergency landing at nearby Seymour Johnson AFB in nearby Goldsboro, after developing a serious fuel leak.

The giant bomber never made it.

Descending through 10,000 feet, the B-52 (with fuel streaming from its left wing) went out of control. The aircraft commander, Major W.S. Tullock, ordered his crew to eject. Five members of the augmented, eight-man crew survived. One of them, pilot Adam Mattocks, was unable to eject, but somehow lived, according to news reports at the time.

Local residents were terrified by the fiery crash, which lit up the night sky. One man said his mother fell to her knees in prayer after hearing the thunderous impact of the B-52 hitting the ground.

What the locals didn't know was the bomber's mission and payload. At the time it went down, the B-52 had been flying an airborne alert sortie, a key component of the nation's nuclear deterrent posture at the height of the Cold War.

On board the B-52 were two Mark 39 hydrogen bombs. Upon receipt of the necessary authorization orders from the national command authority, Major Bullock and his men--along with other SAC bomber crews--were prepared to fly to the Soviet Union and unleash nuclear war.

But as the Buff began to disintegrate over the North Carolina countryside, the two H-bombs fell from the aircraft. The parachute on one of the weapons deployed properly, and it glided to a (seemingly) soft landing beneath a tree.

However, the other bomb's chute malfunctioned. It plowed into the earth at a speed of more than 700 miles per hour. But that wasn't the worst of it, as the Goldsboro News-Argus explains:

[As] the two weapons separated from the aircraft as it began to break apart -- five of the six arming devices on one of the bombs became activated, causing them to carry out many of the steps needed to arm themselves. A military analyst determined that the pilot's safe/arm switch was the only one of the six arming devices on the bombs that prevented detonation.

Within an hour of the crash, helicopters were flying over the site and Air Force officials were urging those in the area -- and at the scene -- to evacuate.

[snip]

So while those living around the site were being urged to evacuate, military officials launched an effort to recover the buried bomb.


[Local resident Rudolph] Tyndall remembers the dig.

"In the process of digging, they came in and put up big lights. CP&L put them all the way around the hole," he said. "(The Air Force) worked all night. A lot of people don't know this because they couldn't get in."

The Air Force eventually recovered what was left of the weapon. But some living in the area remain unconvinced, noting that water from a nearby swamp began filling the crater created by the impact, and the 16 heavy-duty pumps brought in by recovery teams couldn't keep up with the volume.

There were heroes on that January night. A young Air Force EOD officer named Jack ReVelle led efforts to render the weapons safe, ensuring there would not be an accidental detonation. ReVelle, now a noted management consultant, was among those scheduled to attend Tuesday's reunion.

How close did we come to a nuclear disaster? One analyst later claimed that the weapon that landed in the tree was only "one click away from detonation." However, that statement is in dispute since it came from Daniel Ellsberg, known as the source for the "Pentagon Papers." Ellsberg says his information was based on a classified DoD report.

But that observation makes sense. Gravity weapons like the Mark 39 were designed to descend slowly by parachute, while the arming system prepared the bomb for detonation. Hanging beneath that tree, the weapon was one step away from vaporizing much of the surrounding area. The bomb that plummeted to earth posed less of a risk, given its rapid fall.

The crash near Faro wasn't the only one during the history of SAC's airborne alert program, and oddly enough, another serious mishap also had a connection to Seymour Johnson AFB, home of SAC's 68th Bomb Wing. In January 1966, one of the unit's B-52s collided with a KC-135 tanker during an aerial refueling along the Spanish coast. One of the nuclear weapons on the aircraft fell into the sea; military divers later recovered it from a depth of more than 2,000 feet, 80 days after the crash.

The airborne alert program ended a little more than two years later after another B-52--this one from Plattsburgh AFB, NY--crashed at Thule, Greenland, while attempting an emergency landing. Personnel from the U.S. and Denmark worked for the next nine months to clean up contaminated snow and ice.

Five decades later, the airborne alert missions remain controversial, and not just because of the accidents. Anti-nuclear activists claim the flights were unnecessarily provocative.

But that view is misguided. It was the height of the Cold War; warning systems for detecting ballistic missile attacks were relatively crude. Had the Soviets launched a "bolt from the blue," much of our bomber force might be caught on the ground, and our ICBM force was still in its infancy. The airborne alert missions had a clear deterrent value, showing Moscow that we could still deliver a devastating counter-strike, even in the event of a surprise attack.

7 comments:

TOF said...

I remember that incident. I was about half way through Undergraduate Navigator Training. Later, a weapons officer used that event as part of his training presentation. As I recall, he said that the weapon the came down via parachute hung up in a tree. It had only one block remaining to close and that was a contact switch.

Operation Chromedome was airborne alert flown by nuclear armed B-52s. There were two routes: one route flew out into the Mediterranean Sea; the other flew up over the Arctic Ocean. The Mediterranean route was refueled by tankers operating out of Torrejon on the outbound leg and Moron on the return leg. The Arctic route was refueled by tankers operating out the bases in the northeast US on the outbound leg and over Alaska on the return leg. There was also a B-52 that monitored the BMEWS site at Thule.

Some might consider Chromedome operations to be provocative, but not any more provocative than deploying IRBMs in Greec, Turkey, and the UK. I participated in the Cuban Missile Crisis. The level of preparedness of the SAC bomber force, along with the fact that the ICBM force was fast coming online and the SLBM force was largely at sea, is really what convinced the Soviets that installing offensive missiles in Cuba wasn't as good an idea as first thought.

Still, the Soviets were every bit as provocative as the US was. I knew a Jupiter C missile launch officer by the name of Iceal E. Hambleton. He told me that he watched through binoculars as Soviet bombers orbited over the Black Sea north of the Turkish missile site he commanded. Even in the mid-1970s the Soviets did some things that were provocative, deliberately or not. I recall being on alert and responding to a klaxon at about 2330 MST. When we got to the aircraft we received a real posturing message that directed preparation for takeoff. After a few minutes a "stand down" message came through. Turned out that the Soviets were complying with a disarmament treaty by launching missile from an active ICBM field and sending them to Kamchatka. They did that several night in succession before the diplomats got in the act and got them to stop.

Spook86 said...

TOF--Great stuff. A lot of people assumed that the weapon with the malfunctioning chute was the one that nearly detonated; but a gravity bomb of that type was designed to descend gradually by chute, while the arming system worked its magic. The weapon with the failed chute was never really at risk of detonating, but the bomb resting peacefully in that tree was the one on the brink of explosion.

My hat's off to you (and all the SAC warriors) who kept the peace during those days. I spent a tour in SAC during my NCO days, as a unit historian of all things. My outfit as an aerial refueling group (the last Buff left just as I arrived).

But I instantly grasped the seriousness of the business when I began to dig into the operational plans. My history always had an annex that listed all of our planned tanker missions for Armageddon, beginning with the four alert birds; we had to list the offload, the B-52 sortie they had to refuel, and the tanker's planned recovery base. For the later missions we had to add such caveats as "assuming no prior dispersal," and "assuming base is still operational," i.e., we haven't been nuked yet.

I left the group in the mid-80s, when I went to OTS. About a year later I was told that SAC decided to scramble the four alert birds one night, to test our readiness. The KC-135s made it off the ground in plenty of time, but the activity/noise scared a lot of people on base and in the local area.

You knew Iceal Hambleton? Now there's an Air Force legend. To this day, I think that many people don't understand why it was imperative to rescue him in Vietnam, at any price. Had he been captured, he would have been on the first flight to Moscow, once they figured out what he knew.

TOF said...

Yes. I knew Gene Hambleton; we went through EB-66 RTU together at Shaw AFB together. Actually, the personnel screw up there was a triple header. There were three Lt Cols with 29 years service; all three were former missile squadron commanders: Hambleton and Del Worms were Minuteman squadron commanders and Jim Ely was a Titan II squadron commander. They all said they had travel and duty restrictions, yet there they were training in a bird that lead immediately to a combat assignment at Korat. After Hambleton was shot down Ely and Worms were taken off the flying schedule. They did get their 30 years of service, however.

Bob said...

There was another incident:
The Tybee Island B-47 crash was an incident on February 5, 1958, in which the United States Air Force lost a 7,600-pound (3,400 kg) Mark 15 hydrogen bomb in the waters off Tybee Island near Savannah, Georgia, USA. During a practice exercise the B-47 bomber carrying it collided in midair with an F-86 fighter plane. To prevent a detonation in the event of a crash and to save the aircrew, the bomb was jettisoned. Following several unsuccessful searches, the bomb was presumed lost somewhere in Wassaw Sound off the shores of Tybee Island.

Ned said...

At 3 to 4 megatons (per nuclearweaponarchive.org), that would have been a truly horrible mess

Spook86 said...

South Carolina also had a nuclear accident; in 1958, a B-47 inadvertently dropped a nuke on Mars Bluff, SC, near Florence:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mars_Bluff,_South_Carolina

I can only imagine the look on the nav's face when he saw that bomb fall to the bomb bay floor and crash through. But I'm sure his reaction was matched by the locals on the ground that heard that massive blast and saw the mushroom cloud.

TOF said...

I forgot to mention that on the day Bat 21 was shot down (with Gene Hambleton as navigator) Jim Ely was there as navigator on Bat 22. Both aircraft were fired on but Bat 22 evaded the SA-2s and called the loss of Bat 21 back to the Korat command post. Just imagine the problems if both aircraft had been downed with two old Lt Cols on the ground. BTW, Hambleton was 53 years old when he was shot down.