Information Supplied by Nuclear Weapons Historian Chuck Hansen

The researchers for this site were advised by nuclear physicist Ralph Lapp to contact nuclear-weapons historian Chuck Hansen for information about the Goldsboro incident. Hansen generously forwarded the following text to us on 12 October 2000. This material makes its public debut on this page, and will be published in forthcoming versions of Hansen's CD-ROM, The Swords of Armageddon.

"Hyperlinked" word definitions are provided where possible.

Note to readers: In forwarding this material to us, Hansen included the following notations at the end of his sources list of some problems and conflicts contained within the source documents. We felt they warranted prominent placement:

"The January 24, 1961 Loper to Anderson letter states that the free-falling weapon suffered a one-point detonation on impact in his January 26 letter to Anderson, Loper corrected this statement and noted that a one-point detonation had not occurred. The MK 39s dropped near Goldsboro have been misidentified and mischaracterized in almost every published popular account of this incident. The bombs were not "24 megaton weapons," as most commonly described. The terms "nuclear capsule" and "tritium injection" are mutually exclusive. The Goldsboro weapons were most likely sealed pit MK 39s; "nuclear capsule" were only used on weapons with insertable cores (including early MK 39 mods). Sealed pit MK 39s began entering stockpile in March 1957."

January 24, 1961 / B-52 / Goldsboro, North Carolina

During a B-52G airborne alert mission 15 miles north of Seymour Johnson AFB, a fire began as a result of a major leak in a wing fuel cell which had caused the loss of 37,000 lbs. of fuel in two minutes. The fire and resultant explosion caused structural failure of the aircraft's right wing at an altitude of 8,000 feet after the crew had bailed out. This in turn resulted in two unarmed MK 39 weapons without nuclear capsule separating from the bomber during airframe breakup between 10,000 and 2,000 feet. The two bombs fell to earth near Goldsboro, North Carolina, about one mile from the crash site and 13 miles from Seymour Johnson. Five of the eight B-52 crew members survived. Wreckage of the aircraft was scattered over a wide area of approximately two square miles near Faro, North Carolina.

During the breakup of the airframe, three of four arming safety devices on one bomb were actuated, including arming wires pulled out, the pulse generator actuated, the explosive actuator fired, a timer run down, all contacts of the differential pressure switch closed, and the low and high voltage thermal batteries actuated. The arm-safe remained in a "safe" position and the rotary safing switch was not operated. The X-unit was not charged, nor was tritium injected into the pit.

These actions resulted in the bomb's warhead going through all of its arming sequence, including 100-foot diameter retardation parachute deployment, activation of internal timing mechanisms, development of high voltage in the firing system, etc. However, since the fourth arming device -- the pilot's arm/safe switch -- was not activated, the warhead did not complete its arming sequence. This MK 39 descended by parachute and consequently suffered only minor damage when it impacted the ground, penetrating about 18 inches and deforming the frangible bomb casing nose assembly. The weapon remained in an upright position with its parachute hanging in a tree about a mile from the main aircraft wreckage field. (Figure VIII-4)

The second MK 39 bomb fell free and broke apart upon impact with the sandy clay earth about 500 yards from the main aircraft wreckage and three-quarters of a mile from the impact point of the first bomb. This weapon made a visible surface crater about eight feet in diameter and six feet deep. No explosion occurred, although this weapon was also partially armed upon release from the aircraft and further by closure of an arming switch upon impact. A high voltage switch was not closed, so this bomb also did not arm completely. This weapon's fuzing and firing sequence underwent all of the actions of the first bomb, with the exception that the timer ran for only 12 to 15 seconds; only two contacts of the differential pressure switch closed; the high voltage thermal battery was not actuated; and the rotary safing switch was destroyed on impact. The nose crystals in both weapons, used for salvage fuzing, were crushed.

Upon impact, both the primary and secondary of the free-falling bomb smashed through the frangible nose of the weapon and penetrated farther into the waterlogged farmland. The tail of the bomb was located approximately 22 feet below ground surface. Excavation began immediately after the crash, around 1:30 PM on January 24, but was hindered by freezing weather, water in the hole, and the presence of unexploded HE. During the remainder of January 24, manual and mechanical digging reached a depth of eight feet, where a portion of the main body section and pieces of the nose section were found.

The following day, at a depth of 12 feet, the top of the parachute pack was exposed. Adverse weather and a rising water table hindered recovery operations on January 26; however, digging reached 15 feet where the parachute pack, a section of the nose, and pieces of the primary and HE were recovered.

By January 28, digging had reached a depth of 18 feet and detonators, two arm/safe switches, trajectory arming device, more pieces of HE and the primary, and a tritium bottle were found. One of the arm/safe switches was found in the "armed" position.

The remainder of the primary and HE was recovered at a depth of 20 feet on January 29; the pit was found intact the following day. The crater was now 22 feet deep, 50 feet wide, and 70 feet long.

By February 7, digging had resulted in the excavation of a crater 42 feet deep and 200 feet in diameter. Recovery operations were canceled at this time because of cave-ins, freezing weather, equipment limitations, and rising water. The recovered bomb parts, including an undamaged tritium reservoir and the weapon's afterbody, were taken to the AEC's Medina Base near San Antonio, Texas. Figure VIII-5 shows the weapon afterbody being removed from the buried bomb in the muddy pit.

Uncontrollable flooding of the crater caused by a high local water table made further excavation impractical despite 14 pumps removing a combined total of 6,000 gallons of water per hour and further retrieval work was halted on May 25. Calculations based on the weight and configuration of the secondary, impact angle and velocity, and soil composition placed the missing bomb component at a depth of 180+/-10 feet. The probable minimum estimated cost of recovery was in the neighborhood of $500,000.

The Air Force subsequently purchased an easement to prevent digging in the vicinity of the point of impact. The missing weapon secondary was never located. (During a later accident, LASL told the Air Force that thermonuclear weapon secondaries were "virtually indestructible.") There was no detectable radiation in the area.


"Goldsboro Bomb Recovery," Attachment 2 to Memorandum dated April 18, 1968 for AEC Chairman Seaborg and Commissioners Ramey, Tape, and Johnson, from Assistant General Manager for Military Application, through the General Manager, USAEC, Subject: Underwater Search for Weapon Debris at Thule, Greenland (Memorandum attached to AEC 907/33, Information Meeting Item, Note By Secretary, April 22, 1968)
"Crash of Air Force Plane Near Goldsboro, North Carolina, January 24, 1961," undated U.S. Public Health Service report
"Analysis of Ballistics of Four MK 28FI Weapons Released as a Result of the Collision of a B-52 and KC-135 near Vera, Spain, on 17 January 1966," Staff Study by Systems Analysis Team of Search Operations, prepared for Major General Delmar E. Wilson, Commander, 16th Air Force, 7 February 1966, report attached to memorandum dated 13 February 1966 to SAC (Gen. John D. Ryan) USAF (Maj. Gen. Woodrow P. Swancutt), from Maj. Gen. Delmar E. Wilson, USAF, Commander, 16AF, subject: Search Operations, Palomares, Spain, p. 3
letter dated January 24, 1961 to Honorable Clinton P. Anderson, Chairman, JCAE, from Herbert B. Loper, Assistant to the Secretary of Defense (Atomic Energy)
letter dated January 26, 1961 to Honorable Clinton P. Anderson, Chairman, JCAE, from Herbert B. Loper, Assistant to the Secretary of Defense (Atomic Energy)
memorandum dated February 7, 1961 from Dr. John Foster, subject: Accident of B-52, January 24, 1961, 12 1/2 miles North of Seymour-Johnson Air Force Base
letter dated May 17, 1961 to Honorable Chet Holifield, Chairman, JCAE, from Herbert B. Loper, Assistant to the Secretary of Defense (Atomic Energy)
letter dated May 23, 1961 to Honorable Chet Holifield, Chairman, JCAE, from Herbert B. Loper, Assistant to the Secretary of Defense (Atomic Energy)
"Analysis of the Safety Aspects of the [deleted] Bombs Involved in B-52G Crash near Goldsboro, North Carolina," SCDR 81-61, Sandia Corporation, February 1961, attachment to letter dated March 27, 1961 to James T. Ramey, Executive Director, JCAE, from A. R. Luedecke, General Manager, USAEC
OOMA Airmunitions Letter 136-11-56G, Summary of Nuclear Weapons Incidents (AF Form 1058) and Related Problems, January 1961, Headquarters Ogden Air Materiel Area, USAF, Hill AFB, Utah, 18 April 1961, pp. 2-28.

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Last Updated: 27 November 2000