Goldsboro, NC Goldsboro B52 Bomber Crash, Jan 1961

Recovering the Goldsboro B52 Bomb, Jan 1961, photo from

The 1961 Goldsboro B-52 crash was an accident that occurred in Goldsboro, North Carolina, on January 24, 1961. A B-52 Stratofortress carrying two Mark 39 nuclear bombs broke up in mid-air, dropping its nuclear payload in the process. The pilot in command ordered the crew to eject at 9,000 feet. Five men successfully ejected or bailed out of the aircraft and landed safely. Another ejected but did not survive the landing, and two died in the crash.

The aircraft, a B-52G, was based at Seymour Johnson Air Force Base in Goldsboro. Around midnight on January 23–24, 1961, the bomber had a rendezvous with a tanker for aerial refueling. During the hook-up, the tanker crew advised the B-52 aircraft commander, Major Walter Scott Tulloch, that his aircraft had a fuel leak in the right wing. The refueling was aborted, and ground control was notified of the problem. The aircraft was directed to assume a holding pattern off the coast until the majority of fuel was consumed. However, when the B-52 reached its assigned position, the pilot reported that the leak had worsened and that 37,000 pounds of fuel had been lost in three minutes. The aircraft was immediately directed to return and land at Seymour Johnson Air Force Base.

As it descended through 10,000 feet on its approach to the airfield, the pilots were no longer able to keep the aircraft in trim and lost control of it. The pilot in command ordered the crew to eject, which they did at 9,000 feet. Five men ejected and landed safely. Another ejected but did not survive the landing, and two died in the crash. The third pilot of the bomber, Lt. Adam Mattocks, is the only man known to have successfully bailed out of the top hatch of a B-52 without an ejection seat. Although the crew last saw the aircraft intact with its payload of two Mark 39 hydrogen thermonuclear bombs on board it broke apart before impact releasing the bombs. The wreckage of the aircraft covered a 2-square-mile area of tobacco and cotton farmland at Faro, about 12 miles north of Goldsboro.

The two 3-4 megaton[a] MK. 39 nuclear bombs separated from the gyrating aircraft as it broke up between 1,000 and 2,000 feet. Five of the six arming mechanisms on one of the bombs activated, causing it to execute many of the steps needed to arm itself, such as charging the firing capacitors and, critically, deployment of a 100-foot-diameter retard parachute. The parachute allowed that bomb to hit the ground with little damage.

The bomb that descended by parachute was found intact, and standing upright as a result of its parachute being caught in a tree. According to Lt. Jack Revelle, the bomb disposal expert responsible for disarming the device, the arm/safe switch was still in the safe position, although it had completed the rest of the arming sequence.

The second bomb plunged into a muddy field at around 700 miles per hour and disintegrated without detonation of its conventional explosives. The tail was discovered about 20 feet below ground. Pieces of the bomb were recovered. According to nuclear weapons historian Chuck Hansen, although the bomb was partially armed when it left the aircraft, an unclosed high-voltage switch had prevented it from fully arming.