On the night of January 23rd, 1961, a lucky turn of events prevented the greatest nuclear disaster the United States would have known. Thousands of people would have died instantly, with millions more at the mercy of nuclear fallout. This lucky save is now known as the Goldsboro Incident.
The Goldsboro incident wasn’t the only nuclear mishap that happened in the 1950s and 1960s, but it is definitely the one that could have had the most severe outcome. On that fateful night in January, a B-52 Stratofortress bomber patrolling the skies over the Atlantic Ocean developed a fuel leak. The pilots were advised to seer their craft and make an emergency landing at Seymour Johnson Air Force Base near Goldsboro, North Carolina. While approaching the airfield, the pilots lost control over the plane, and to save their own lives - had to bail out. Only five of the crew members managed to parachute safely out. Three pilots were killed in the crash.
The official announcement of the US airforce claimed there was no danger of radiation in the area as the nuclear core of the weapons was intact. However, a former military analyst claimed to have seen highly classified documents that clarified how close the situation was to becoming complete chaos. According to said document, the bomb had accidentally armed itself while falling, and only one out of its seven arming switches was in the “off” position preventing detonation! This information was confirmed in 2013 by author Eric Schlosser. While researching his book Command and Control, Schlosser unearthed a declassified document written by the supervisor of the nuclear weapons safety department at Sandia National Laboratories Parker F Jones. “One simple, dynamo-technology, low voltage switch stood between the United States and a major catastrophe,” Jones wrote. The second weapon, which crashed without the parachute, broke up into several pieces, one of which was never found. The lost piece contained a significant amount of high-enriched uranium.
Had this one little switch not stayed on lock, the entire state of North Caroline might not have existed today. The fallen thermonuclear devices were 250 times more powerful than Little Boy, the bomb that was dropped on Hiroshima during WWII. If detonated, it would have produced a fireball 2 km in diameter and inflicted third-degree burns on anyone standing as far as 19 km away.
Some people disagree with this version of the incident, claiming the actual possibility of detonation was next to none. In their book Broken Arrow: The Declassified History of U.S. authors, Michael H. Maggelet and James C. Oskins point out that that the arm-ready switch was in the safe position, and the high-voltage battery was not activated, no electrical power could reach any components necessary to fire the weapon and produce a nuclear explosion.
Whatever the case may be, we should all be eternally grateful for the multiple safety systems that prevented the explosion, and most of all - to plain old luck.