I have often wondered about an accidental drop of a nuclear weapon or other armaments from one of our own planes on an American city (I can be strange that way). We find out today that Goldsboro, NC came very close to being obliterated in 1961 when a U.S. Air Force bomber broke in half while flying over eastern North Carolina. From the belly of the B-52 fell two bombs -- two nuclear bombs that hit the ground near the city of Goldsboro. Newly releases docs can be found here.
The B-52 was flying over North Carolina on January 24, 1961, when it suffered a "failure of the right wing," the report said.
As the plane broke apart, the two bombs plummeted toward the ground. The parachute opened on one; it didn't on the other.
"The impact of the aircraft breakup initiated the fuzing sequence for both bombs," the summary of the documents said.
In other words, both weapons came alarmingly close to detonating.
Weapon 1, the bomb whose parachute opened, landed intact. Fortunately, the safing pins that provided power from a generator to the weapon had been yanked -- preventing it from going off.
Weapon 2, the second bomb with the unopened parachute, landed in a free fall. The impact of the crash put it in the "armed" setting. Fortunately -- once again -- it damaged another part of the bomb needed to initiate an explosion.
While it's unclear how frequently these types of accidents have occurred, the Defense Department has disclosed 32 accidents involving nuclear weapons between 1950 and 1980.
There are at least 21 declassified accounts between 1950 and 1968 of aircraft-related incidents in which nuclear weapons were lost, accidentally dropped, jettisoned for safety reasons or on board planes that crashed. The accidents occurred in various U.S. states, Greenland, Spain, Morocco and England, and over the Pacific and Atlantic oceans and the Mediterranean Sea.
Another five accidents occurred when planes were taxiing or parked.
Two months after the close call in Goldsboro, another B-52 was flying in the western United States when the cabin depressurized and the crew ejected, leaving the pilot to steer the bomber away from populated areas, according to a DOD document. The plane crashed in Yuba City, California, but safety devices prevented the two onboard nuclear weapons from detonating.