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