Known now as the Goldsboro incident, in the middle of the night on the 23rd of January 1961, a B-52 Stratofortress was flying over the skies of the Atlantic. The plane developed a fuel leak and was directed to fly towards Goldsboro, North Carolina to land at nearby Seymour Johnson Air Force Base. However, as they had just crossed over to land from sea, the pilots lost control of the plane and had to bail out of the craft. Only 5 crewmembers successfully parachuted out, the rest died in the crash.
This wasn’t an ordinary flight for the B-52 and the crew though, nor would it be an ordinary crash. Onboard the plane were 2 3.8 megaton thermonuclear bombs. After the crew lost control of the plane and it began falling to the earth, it broke up and the two bombs separated from the attachments in their bays. They fell to the ground over North Carolina.
At this point, you’re likely trying to think of the massive irradiated zone in North Carolina that’s left as the result of two nuclear weapons detonating. However, it doesn’t exist.
The morning after the crash, investigators found that one of the bombs had successfully deployed its parachute and the other had fallen into a group of trees. The one that fell into the trees fell at such a high rate of speed that it was 18 feet under the surface of the earth when the crews found it.
Luckily for everyone in North Carolina, the core of the weapons remained in tact and there was no radiation was leaking. The military at the time made sure to keep the public calm, but records now indicate that experts were rather concerned that one of the bombs would end up detonating due to accidental arming during the crash.
This little tidbit of how close North Carolina came to being nuked wasn’t really known until 2013 when author Eric Schlosser aquired documents under FIA, or the Freedom of Information Act. The documents detailed an alarming fact, that 5 out of the total 6 safety mechanisms the bomb had onboard had become disarmed during the fall. If the last one had unlocked, the bomb likely would’ve exploded.
It was one 1960s era dynamo low-voltage switch that kept the bomb from detonating.
To give some perspective on how bad this would’ve been, the bombs that feel in Goldsboro were 250 times more powerful than the bomb dropped on Hiroshima. The fireball from the bomb alone would’ve been 2 kilometers in diameter and third degree burns would’ve been registered on human skin up to 19 kilometers away.
All this said, there is some dispute to the claim that the bomb almost detonated by other researchers, believing that there were a few other safety mechanisms in place that would’ve kept the bomb from exploding. A debate can be had about the actual probability, but regardless, 2 nukes were dropped on North Carolina in 1961.
The bomb that landed without a parachute actually broke up into several pieces with one piece containing a significant amount of enriched uranium which was never found.
Between 1950 and 1968, the Goldsboro incident really wasn’t that unique. There were 700 documented similarly significant nuclear accidents in that nearly 20-year span, with many arguably coming closer to detonation than Goldsboro.
While now, in hindsight we can recognize that the US never accidentally nuked itself, it should be noted how many times the united states did come close to denoting thermonuclear weapons on their own citizens… accidentally of course.