The US news networks have followed up his discovery that the nearest America came to a nuclear catastrophe was not the Cuban missile crisis of October 1962 but a hitherto unknown moment in January 1961, when aB-52 flying over North Carolina exploded. Every safety mechanism on the hydrogen bombs it was carrying failed, except a basic switch. If it had been set on the equivalent of “on”, most of the citizens of Washington, Philadelphia and New York would have been wiped out.
ON JANUARY 23, 1961, a B-52 packing a pair of Mark 39 hydrogen bombs suffered a refueling snafu and went into an uncontrolled spin over North Carolina. In the cockpit of the rapidly disintegrating bomber was a lanyard attached to the bomb-release mechanism. Intense G-forces tugged hard at it and unleashed the nukes, which, at four megatons, were 250 times more powerful than the weapon that leveled Hiroshima. One of them “failed safe” and plummeted to the ground unarmed. The other weapon’s failsafe mechanisms—the devices designed to prevent an accidental detonation—were subverted one by one, as Eric Schlosser recounts in his new book,Command and Control:
When the lanyard was pulled, the locking pins were removed from one of the bombs. The Mark 39 fell from the plane. The arming wires were yanked out, and the bomb responded as though it had been deliberately released by the crew above a target. The pulse generator activated the low-voltage thermal batteries. The drogue parachute opened, and then the main chute. The barometric switches closed. The timer ran out, activating the high-voltage thermal batteries. The bomb hit the ground, and the piezoelectric crystals inside the nose crushed. They sent a firing signal…
Unable to deny that two of its bombs had fallen from the sky—one in a swampy meadow, the other in a field near Faro, North Carolina—the Air Force insisted that there had never been any danger of a nuclear detonation. This was a lie.