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This Day in History: The Broken Arrow Incident of 1961

On this day in 1961, a B-52G Stratofortress disintegrates over the skies of North Carolina. As it breaks up, it inadvertently releases two Mark 39 thermonuclear bombs.

 

Miraculously, neither exploded.

 

The world was then in the midst of the Cold War, and the United States kept B-52 bombers in the sky at all times. These bombers were armed with nuclear warheads.

 

On the night of January 23-24, one such plane was in the sky, commanded by Maj. Walter Tulloch. The crew was about halfway through its shift, and the bomber was preparing for an aerial refueling.


A B-52G Stratofortress bomber is pictured during takeoff. (USAF photo)

It wasn’t to be: The tanker’s crew could see that the bomber was leaking fuel. Tulloch began to circle, burning off fuel before an emergency landing, but the leak kept getting worse.

 

“Tulloch had the B-52 lined up to land on Runway 26,” historian Joel Dobson writes, “but suddenly the plane started veering off to the right, toward the hamlet of Faro. Then it started rolling over and tearing apart.”

 

The right wing sheared off the plane. Her crew of 8 had mere seconds to react. 

 

Six bailed out, including Tulloch and another pilot who had ejector seats. A third pilot, 1st Lt. Adam Mattocks, didn’t have an ejector seat, though. He was in a bad spot, to say the least.

 

Mattocks believes that God saved him that night. 

 

He flung himself out of the hatch, leaping as far away from the plane as possible. His parachute opened, but it did so just as the plane exploded. The forces coming toward him shut the parachute closed again. Mattocks was plummeting towards earth until, miraculously, a little bit of air worked its way into the parachute, opening it for a second time.

 

During all this commotion, the two bombs had broken free and now fell alongside the shattered plane remnants.

 

One local later remembered those moments. “Everything around here was on fire,” Billy Reeves told a reporter. “The grass was burning. Big Daddy’s Road over there was melting. My mother was praying. She thought it was the End of Times.”

 

Military helicopters arrived, and an amplified voice bellowed at those in the little farming community to evacuate. “We didn’t know why,” Reeves said. “We didn’t ask why. We just got out of there.” Another agreed: “They told us to git, and we got.”

 

Each bomb met a different fate. The parachute on the first failed to deploy. It was going so fast that it slammed into a muddy field and buried itself as deep as 200 feet. By contrast, the parachute on the other one opened and got caught in a tree, leaving the nose of that bomb barely touching the ground.

 

Some disagreement remains about how close the bombs were to exploding. Some contend that safety features worked, as intended, which is why nothing happened. But then-Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara didn’t think so. “The bomb’s arming mechanism had six or seven steps to go through to detonate, and it went through all but one,” he explained decades later.

 

Either way, the unharmed bomb was cleared relatively quickly, but recovery efforts for the other one were much more difficult.

 

“[A]fter eight days,” a National Archives summary concludes, “the ordnance team had recovered most of the bomb, including the 92 detonators and conventional explosive ‘lenses’ of the ‘primary,’ the first stage implosion section. The uranium-235/plutonium-239 ‘pit’—the very core of the bomb—was recovered on January 29. The ‘secondary,’ however, was never found.”

 

It's presumed to still be deep below ground. Farming is allowed on that land, but no digging or building.

 

Perhaps an unexpected end to the tragedy that nearly occurred on this day more than 60 years ago?


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