Published time: September 20, 2013 22:31
This general view of the city of Hiroshima showing damage wrought by the atomic bomb was taken March 1946, six months after the bomb was dropped August 6, 1945.(Reuters)
The US Air Force inadvertently dropped an atomic bomb over North Carolina in 1961. If a simple safety switch had not prevented the explosive from detonating, millions of lives across the northeast would have been at risk, a new document has revealed.
The revelation offers the first conclusive evidence after decades
of speculation that the US military narrowly avoided a
self-inflicted disaster. The incident is explained in detail in a
recently declassified document written by Parker F. Jones,
supervisor of the nuclear weapons safety department at Sandia
The document – written in 1969 and titled “How I Learned to
Mistrust the H-bomb,” a play on the Stanley Kubrick film title
“Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the
Bomb” – was disclosed to the Guardian by journalist Eric
Three days after President John F. Kennedy’s inauguration, a B-52
bomber carrying two Mark 39 hydrogen bombs departed from
Goldsboro, North Carolina on a routine flight along the East
Coast. The plane soon went into a tailspin, throwing the bombs
from the B-52 into the air within striking distance of multiple
major metropolitan centers.
Each of the explosives carried a payload of 4 megatons – roughly
the same as four million tons of TNT explosive – which could have
triggered a blast 260 times more powerful than the atomic bomb
that wiped out Hiroshima at the end of World War II.
One of the bombs performed in the same way as those dropped over
Japan less than 20 years before – by opening its parachute and
engaging its trigger mechanisms. The only thing that prevented
untold thousands, or perhaps millions, from being killed was a
simple low voltage switch that failed to flip.
That hydrogen bomb, known as MK 39 Mod 2, descended onto tree
branches in Faro, North Carolina, while the second explosive
landed peacefully off Big Daddy’s Road in Pikeville. Jones
determined that three of the four switches designed to prevent
unintended detonation on MK 39 Mod 2 failed to work properly, and
when a final firing signal was triggered that fourth switch was
the only safeguard that worked.
Nuclear fallout from a detonation could have risked millions of
lives in Baltimore, Washington DC, Philadelphia, New York City,
and the areas in between.
“The MK Mod 2 bomb did not possess adequate safety for the
airborne alert role in the B-52,” Jones wrote in his 1969
assessment. He determined “one simple, dynamo-technology, low
voltage switch stood between the United States and a major
catastrophe…It would have been bad news – in spades.”
Before Schlosser brought the document to light through a Freedom
of Information Act request, the US government long denied that
any such event ever took place.
“The US government has consistently tried to withhold
information from the American people in order to prevent
questions being asked about our nuclear weapons policy,” he
told the Guardian. “We were told there was no possibility of
these weapons accidentally detonating, yet here’s one that very
In “Command and Control,” Schlosser’s new book on the nuclear
arms race between the US and the Soviet Union, the journalist
writes that he discovered a minimum of 700 “significant”
accidents involving nuclear weapons in the years between 1950 and