New truths revealed about 1961 nuclear weapons accident in North Carolina

The T-249 switch used to arm nuclear bombs on Strategic Air Command bomber aircraft. Photo courtesy of Glenn's Computer Museum.


The T-249 switch used to arm nuclear bombs on Strategic Air Command bomber aircraft. Photo courtesy of Glenn's Computer Museum.

A recently declassified Sandia National Lab report published by the National Security Archive offers new details about a 1961 nuclear weapons accident in Goldsboro, North Carolina.

While both multi-megaton Mk 39 bombs involved in the mishap were in the "safe" position, the report concluded, by the time one of them hit the ground it was in the "armed" setting because of the impact of the crash. If the shock had not also damaged the switch contacts, the weapon could have detonated. Since the advent of the nuclear age, the nightmarish possibility of an accidental detonation has made weapons safety a boiler-plate item in the U.S. nuclear weapons program — yet potentially serious errors continue to occur. A series of 2013 reports on the Goldsboro accident provided a fresh reminder of the role of luck in preventing nuclear disaster: the same switch involved in the 1961 event had failed in other incidents.

More at the National Security Archives website.

One of the two Mk39 thermonuclear weapons that landed when a B-52 bomber broke up over Goldsboro, North Carolina in February 1961. This was the weapon that came closest to detonation.


One of the two Mk39 thermonuclear weapons that landed when a B-52 bomber broke up over Goldsboro, North Carolina in February 1961. This was the weapon that came closest to detonation.

Notable Replies

  1. It's a small miracle that we survived the Cold War. Those were some crazy times. People today look back at the 70s and 80s and think all of this nuclear paranoia was quaint relic of the era, but it is incidents like this that show just how grounded that thinking was. The US and USSR spend the better part of 4 decades building a gigantic Sword of Damocles over the world before the USSR finally cried uncle.

  2. Eric Schlosser's book Command and Control details a number of incidents similar to this. And for every nuclear-armed bomber accident in the air there were a number of accidents on the ground because, surprise surprise, early jet aircraft had a tendency to catch on fire on the ramp and burn themselves into molten puddles of burning alloy.

  3. It's a lucky thing we had the CRM-114 or there might have been more accidents like this polluting our precious bodily fluids.

  4. We must maintain purity of essence.

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