Such was the state of the world in 1961 that the US had nuclear bombers in the air constantly, ready to respond to the Soviet Union if they decided to launch an attack.
The thinking was that, well, even if the Soviets destroyed everyone on the ground, those in the air would still be able to strike back. Mutually assured destruction, for sure.
But things didn’t go exactly to plan. On January 24, 1961, just four days after John F. Kennedy had been inaugurated as president, disaster struck over North Carolina. The incident was declassified back in 2014 and picked up recently by Atlas Obscura.
At the time, a B-52G Stratofortress jet was flying over Goldsboro, North Carolina. Inside its bays were a pair of Mark 39 3.8-megaton hydrogen bombs, about 260 times more powerful than the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Around midnight on January 23, the bomber was about to be refueled mid-air by another plane (a rather routine operation) when the refueling crew noticed that fuel was leaking from the right wing of the bomber, and the refueling was called off.
After keeping a holding pattern, the bomber was directed to return to Seymour Johnson Air Force Base. But on the way, the crew of eight lost control of the plane.
As The Orange County Register reported, the plane “lost its wing, lost its tail, spun out of control”. The pilot, Adam Mattocks, ordered the crew to bail out. He managed to survive by jumping out as the plane spiraled to the ground, along with four others. Three of the crew did not survive.
The plane crashed nose-first into a tobacco field about 100 kilometers (60 miles) east of Raleigh. Mattocks would later describe the ground as appearing like “the whole Earth was on fire”.
While disastrous, it could have been so much worse. As the plane spiraled out of control, its bomb bay doors were flung open and its two nuclear bombs were thrown out into the air.
One of the bombs deployed its parachute and safely ended up in a tree. Its arming switch had been kept in the “safe” position, so there wasn’t a chance it would go off. It was apparently quite easy to spot hanging in a tree.
The other bomb was a bit more difficult. Its parachute failed, and it ended up crash-landing in a muddy field, breaking into pieces in the process. It took seven days for responders to dig up the bomb.
The weirdest thing, though, was that it didn’t go off. Nuclear bombs have seven steps towards detonation and, well, this bomb had gone through six of them. Its arming switch had even been set to “arm”. But for some reason, it didn’t go off, and no one knows why.
“Why that bomb didn’t explode has been debated for years,” the Register noted. “Was the ARM/SAFE switch broken? Did the impact of the crash spread out the parts so far they couldn’t affect each other? Was the bomb a dud?”
What’s more, while the primary uranium core of the bomb was recovered, the secondary core was never found and remains missing to this day. It’s thought that it’s still buried somewhere at the crash site up to 60 meters (200 feet) underground. There doesn’t seem to be any radiation risk to locals from the lost core.
Thankfully, neither bomb went off. And it’s a good thing they didn’t, as they would have spread radiation over an area about 50 kilometers (30 miles) across. It’s estimated that about 28,000 people could have been killed and a further 26,000 injured by the blast.
This wasn't the only time the US accidentally dropped nuclear bombs, with another resulting in a little girl's playhouse being replaced by a smoking crater. The bizarre episode, though, serves as a reminder as to how close the world once was to nuclear war. Save for a faulty switch, a defiant officer, or a heroic colonel, things could have been a whole lot different.