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USAF Almost Nuked North Carolina In 1961 – Declassified Document 586

Posted by Soulskill
from the south-carolina-would-be-a-more-understandable-target dept.
Freshly Exhumed sends in a story about how close the United States came to accidentally attacking itself with nuclear weapons just a few days after John F. Kennedy took office. "A secret document, published in declassified form for the first time by the Guardian today, reveals that the U.S. Air Force came dramatically close to detonating an atom bomb over North Carolina that would have been 260 times more powerful than the device that devastated Hiroshima. The document, obtained by the investigative journalist Eric Schlosser under the Freedom of Information Act, gives the first conclusive evidence that the US was narrowly spared a disaster of monumental proportions when two Mark 39 hydrogen bombs were accidentally dropped over Goldsboro, North Carolina on 23 January 1961. The bombs fell to earth after a B-52 bomber broke up in mid-air, and one of the devices behaved precisely as a nuclear weapon was designed to behave in warfare: its parachute opened, its trigger mechanisms engaged, and only one low-voltage switch prevented untold carnage."
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USAF Almost Nuked North Carolina In 1961 – Declassified Document

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  • by Anonymous Coward on Friday September 20, 2013 @06:48PM (#44908231)

    What an improvement for NC that would have been.

  • by turkeydance (1266624) on Friday September 20, 2013 @06:49PM (#44908241)
    the triple fail-safe worked.
    • Re: (Score:2, Troll)

      by noh8rz10 (2716597)

      the triple fail-safe worked.

      or put it another way, a simple switch on a nuclear bomb failed as it fell to earth, rendering it inoperable. doesn't inspire much confidence for when it is used in war.

      • or put it another way, a simple switch on a nuclear bomb failed as it fell to earth, rendering it inoperable. doesn't inspire much confidence for when it is used in war.

        Well, if you choose to ignore the fact that the US has successfully used two nuclear bombs in war...

        • by noh8rz10 (2716597) on Friday September 20, 2013 @07:21PM (#44908489)

          or put it another way, a simple switch on a nuclear bomb failed as it fell to earth, rendering it inoperable. doesn't inspire much confidence for when it is used in war.

          Well, if you choose to ignore the fact that the US has successfully used two nuclear bombs in war...

          I don't care as much about the reliability of bombs used in the past, so much as the reliability of bombs we may use in the future. I'd prefer them to inspire confidence!

          btdubs, does anybody know if this switch failure was a safety feature that worked, or a malfunction of a critical piece that was a lifesaver in this scenario?

          • by rhook (943951) on Friday September 20, 2013 @07:52PM (#44908715)

            Most likely it was a safety feature since nukes have to be armed right before they are used. This is by design so that they do not go nuclear is the event of an accident such as this one.

        • by Patch86 (1465427)

          The WW2 atom bombs have as much in common with a cold war H bomb as a medieval musket has with a with a modern belt-fed machine gun. The principal is vaguely the same, but the actual mechanism is almost wholly different.

      • by wonkey_monkey (2592601) on Friday September 20, 2013 @07:20PM (#44908481) Homepage

        or put it another way, a simple switch on a nuclear bomb failed as it fell to earth

        No, the switch didn't fail - apparently three of its siblings did, but the fact that this one didn't prevented the unarmed bomb from detonating.

      • by noh8rz10 (2716597)

        the triple fail-safe worked.

        or put it another way, a simple switch on a nuclear bomb failed as it fell to earth, rendering it inoperable. doesn't inspire much confidence for when it is used in war.

        I don't care as much about the reliability of bombs used in the past, so much as the reliability of bombs we may use in the future. I'd prefer them to inspire confidence!

        btdubs, does anybody know if this switch failure was a safety feature that worked, or a malfunction of a critical piece that was a lifesaver in this scenario?

        • by Obfuscant (592200)

          btdubs, does anybody know if this switch failure was a safety feature that worked, or a malfunction of a critical piece that was a lifesaver in this scenario?

          Well, if you read TFA, you'll learn that three of the four safeties failed and this simple switch safety worked. Probably why they designed in four redundant safeties, don't you think?

          If you do read TFA, you'll also find that the author doesn't know the difference between "broke up in mid-air" and "went into a tailspin", since he claims both happened. And in either case, the bombs were not dropped (a specific action releasing the bombs), they fell out of the sky -- a normal side effect of an aircraft carr

      • by DaveV1.0 (203135) on Friday September 20, 2013 @07:29PM (#44908543) Journal
        Sure, if you want to lie about it. The switch didn't fail. The switch worked perfectly. The switch was there to prevent detonation and it prevented detonation.

        Your way of looking at it is just a straight out lie.
        • by snowraver1 (1052510) on Friday September 20, 2013 @07:39PM (#44908623)
          The point is that of 4 safeguards in place, 3 failed to properly work. That's not concerning?
          • The point is that of 4 safeguards in place, 3 failed to properly work. That's not concerning?

            Presumably that's why there were four instead of two or three.

          • by thegarbz (1787294)

            No. This is basic statistics in a safety system. You identify a consequence and a likelihood of a disaster and use that to get a quantitative risk number. You compare that to the risk you're willing to wear and that gives you a factor for reducing risk. Then it's up to statistics to design a system that meets this criteria.

            You design the system around likelihood of failures of any component in the system. To reduce your risk you either have to pick and maintain components of the utmost reliability or you pi

      • by s.petry (762400)

        I'm not sure you understand how these things are really designed to work. A Bomber crashing is supposed to be in the design scope of the munition. A mid-air collision or any other type of disaster should never send active bombs downward. This is true for conventional munitions as well as nuclear weapons. Nuclear bombs are supposed to be activated prior to release so that they can detonate. They are never supposed to be loaded in an armed state except for during combat missions. An inactive bomb should

        • I'd like to think (perhaps that's not reality) that the nuke shouldn't go off no matter what---unless it was propery activated. E.g. dropping bomb out of an airplane, burning in jet fuel, putting the thing into an incinerator, or have folks go at it with blow torches until they get tired... shouldn't cause anything other than a conventional explosion---not a nuclear one. Perhaps that's too much to wish for, but I'd imagine temper proof circuitry that controls the timings of conventional explosives can enabl

      • by Anonymous Psychopath (18031) on Friday September 20, 2013 @08:05PM (#44908767) Homepage

        the triple fail-safe worked.

        or put it another way, a simple switch on a nuclear bomb failed as it fell to earth, rendering it inoperable. doesn't inspire much confidence for when it is used in war.

        Nope. It was a safety mechanism that worked as intended, after three others did not. The bomb did not malfunction.

    • by timeOday (582209) on Friday September 20, 2013 @07:10PM (#44908433)
      No, the amazing thing is that the triple fail-safe failed! It was only the 4th and final failsafe that did not fail!

      Jones found that of the four safety mechanisms in the Faro bomb, designed to prevent unintended detonation, three failed to operate properly. When the bomb hit the ground, a firing signal was sent to the nuclear core of the device, and it was only that final, highly vulnerable switch that averted calamity.

      Egads.

      If you had the choice between a repeat of this, vs. a certain 9/11-scale attack tomorrow, which would you choose?

      • by shentino (1139071)

        Both options suck and you know it.

        Especially because 9/11 takes our freedom as well as our lives.

        • Especially because 9/11 takes our freedom as well as our lives.

          Don't think this wouldn't have either. In the Northwoods era [wikipedia.org] they probably would have used the occasion to blame it on Cuba (or another political foe) and taken the nation to war.

          Every time a second amendment argument devolves into "so you think everybody should own nuclear weapons?" feel some solace that eventually people will look back on our period and realize that nuclear weapons were a signal that States were too dangerous to keep around.

    • the triple fail-safe worked.

      right, I agree that the article is completely burying the lead (seriously talk about FUD..."It was a single switch!"...)

      but what bothers me is the ridiculous lack of detail about **how the plane 'dropped' the bombs in the first place**

      that's the first thing I looked for as I skimmed TFA

      this is all we get:

      The accident happened when a B-52 bomber got into trouble, having embarked from Seymour Johnson Air Force base in Goldsboro for a routine flight along the East Coast. As it went

      • by Colin Douglas Howell (670559) on Friday September 20, 2013 @08:37PM (#44908931)
        Others have already linked to Wikipedia's article about the crash [wikipedia.org], with one guy saying "sounds like a wing fell off". Reading the article, that seems fairly close to the mark, though not quite right. Here's a summary of what happened to the bomber:

        The bomber was on an "airborne alert mission", meaning that it was carrying live nukes while flying on a route and schedule that would make it ready to perform a nuclear attack on the Soviet Union on short notice. (This was part of a program called Operation Chrome Dome [wikipedia.org].) While it was refueling from a tanker over North Carolina, the tanker crew told the bomber crew that the bomber's right wing was leaking fuel. The bomber broke off from the refueling, informed ground control, and were ordered to fly offshore and hold to burn off most of their fuel load, to reduce the risk of an emergency landing. However, on the way to the holding point, the fuel leak rapidly worsened and became critical, and the plane was then ordered to land immediately. During the descent toward the field, while passing through 10,000 feet altitude, the pilots found they could no longer keep the aircraft under control. The captain ordered the crew to eject; those who survived reported that the plane was still intact when they last saw it. Once the airplane went out of control, it must have gone into an uncontrolled spiral dive, a "tailspin"; that's what frequently happens to a flying airplane when control is lost. Such a dive is often fatal for the airplane long before it reaches the ground; the aerodynamic stresses increase so fast that it breaks up in the air.

        From the sound of it, there was some sort of structural failure in the right wing which got rapidly worse. The wing did not actually fall off while the pilots were inside, but the failure became so bad that they couldn't maintain control and were forced to bail out. Unfortunately, even this article puts so much focus on what happened to the nukes that the important question of what caused the bomber accident in the first place is ignored. It would be nice to see what the Air Force's accident report has to say on this.
  • Yikes! (Score:5, Insightful)

    by adisakp (705706) on Friday September 20, 2013 @06:50PM (#44908245) Journal
    FTA: "the final switch that prevented disaster could easily have been shorted by an electrical jolt, leading to a nuclear burst."
  • Here's what's new (Score:5, Informative)

    by gman003 (1693318) on Friday September 20, 2013 @07:00PM (#44908329)

    The accident has been known about for some time (I first read about it while researching a story I was writing - the protagonist had to build a nuclear bomb, so I was looking for lost and unrecovered nuclear material).

    We have also had reports that one of the bombs was nearly armed. These were officially denied by the military, but it was confirmed by several military members.

    The new development is that the documentation saying "yeah, that bomb nearly went off" has been declassified. Basically the same deal as the Area 51 thing a while back - everyone knew, but now everyone is "allowed" to know.

  • by mveloso (325617) on Friday September 20, 2013 @07:00PM (#44908331)

    Unlike the article implies, the safety design was just fine - after all, the bombs didn't go off.

    Sure, three out of four of them failed - that's why there were four.

    I'd be good for someone with actual statistics knowledge to say what the probability of 3/4/5 safeties failing would be.

    • by drinkypoo (153816)

      I'd be good for someone with actual statistics knowledge to say what the probability of 3/4/5 safeties failing would be.

      You'd have to know about the system and what the probability of each type of failsafe failing is, not just the number...

    • by noh8rz10 (2716597) on Friday September 20, 2013 @07:08PM (#44908409)

      I'd be good for someone with actual statistics knowledge to say what the probability of 3/4/5 safeties failing would be.

      1/8 | 1/16 | 1/32. I'm a statistical god!

    • When 5 of the 6 arming mechanisms on a 3.8Mt bomb activate when they're not supposed to, it doesn't take an advanced knowledge of statistics to realize it was pretty close. Hopefully they went back to the drawing board on that one.

    • by sehlat (180760)

      NASA has a saying, "If you're running on the backups, you're already in trouble." This was the backup to the backup to the backup to the backup.

      OTOH, now we have evidence as to why you do NOT choose the lowest bidder for systems that are absolutely MUST NOT FAIL!

  • by Guppy (12314) on Friday September 20, 2013 @07:03PM (#44908369)

    only one low-voltage switch prevented untold carnage.

    Just imagine if there had been a Tin Whisker [wikipedia.org] shorting that switch.

  • by JoeyRox (2711699) on Friday September 20, 2013 @07:14PM (#44908447)
    Article says:

    "The accident happened when a B-52 bomber got into trouble, having embarked from Seymour Johnson Air Force base in Goldsboro for a routine flight along the East Coast."

    If carrying A-Bombs across the eastern coast is a routine flight I would love to know what the USAF considers an exceptional flight.
    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by Anonymous Coward

      During the Cold War, we had nuclear-armed bombers in the air 24/7 in case of a Russian strike. When you're doing something 24/7, it becomes routine.

    • by evilviper (135110) on Saturday September 21, 2013 @02:29AM (#44910221) Journal

      If carrying A-Bombs across the eastern coast is a routine flight I would love to know what the USAF considers an exceptional flight.

      This was 1961, at the height of nuclear proliferation. The US government was selling uranium-235, in blister packs, out the back door of every nuclear power plant. Radioactive material was the iPhone of its day. Nobody knew enough to be afraid of it, yet. We were a small step away from having millions of plutonium-powered cars driving around.

      It's only today that we're hyper-sensitive about the risks of accidents... Back then, we were pretty sure we'd be on the receiving end of 1,000 Soviet ICBMs any old day, so a stray US nuke wasn't such a big deal.

      Of course, if one nuke HAD accidentally gone off over over US soil, you have to wonder if the military could own-up to their failure killing tens of thousands of dead Americans, or if it would be called a Russian attack and cause a full-scale retaliation.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Friday September 20, 2013 @07:32PM (#44908565)

    From wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1966_Palomares_B-52_crash

    The 1966 Palomares B-52 crash or Palomares incident occurred on 17 January 1966, when a B-52G bomber of the USAF Strategic Air Command collided with a KC-135 tanker during mid-air refuelling at 31,000 feet (9,450 m) over the Mediterranean Sea, off the coast of Spain. The KC-135 was completely destroyed when its fuel load ignited, killing all four crew members. The B-52G broke apart, killing three of the seven crew members aboard.[1]

    Of the four Mk28 type hydrogen bombs the B-52G carried,[2] three were found on land near the small fishing village of Palomares in the municipality of Cuevas del Almanzora, Almería, Spain. The non-nuclear explosives in two of the weapons detonated upon impact with the ground, resulting in the contamination of a 2-square-kilometer (490 acres) (0.78 square mile) area by plutonium.

    ...

    The B-52G began its mission from Seymour Johnson Air Force Base, North Carolina, carrying four Type B28RI hydrogen bombs[3] on a Cold War airborne alert mission named Operation Chrome Dome.

    Guess where the B-52 that broke up over Goldsboro flew out from? That's right, Seymour Johnson Air Force base!

    What the article doesn't make clear is if the detonation of the bomb in Goldsboro would have been nuclear, or whether it would have only set off the non-nuclear charges like the two bombs in Palomeres.

    • by mirix (1649853)

      There's been a bunch of these over the years. To get the weapon to actually initiate fission, all the charges have to be fired with very precise timing, to compress the material into critical mass. If the charges go off accidentally, you don't get fission, rather it just blows the fissile material all over the place. What murrican tv likes to call a 'dirty bomb' i guess.

      A B52 crashed and its bombs went off near Thule AFB in the late 60s (non fission, again). Greenland/Denmark had been lying to it's citizens

  • by BigSlowTarget (325940) on Friday September 20, 2013 @10:44PM (#44909567) Journal
    So this was the main feature in a recently published book. It's making the rounds because it is part of the press blurb. Indirectly Slashdot is being used to push the guy's book. Well done viral marketing dude.
  • by rossdee (243626) on Saturday September 21, 2013 @09:03AM (#44911155)

    an atom bomb over North Carolina that would have been 260 times more powerful than the device that devastated Hiroshima.'

    With that sort of yield it was a Hydrogen Bomb, not just an atom bomb

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