Sunday, January 29, 2012

Apocalypse Denied

B-52It's a fact too few people know: In 1961 a crippled B-52 dropped two megaton nuclear weapons on the farm community of Faro, North Carolina. I grew up a few miles from where those bombs landed and I always heard rumors about the night Wayne County was nearly erased. Recently, Bob Buckley and I caught up with survivors, witnesses and an author of a new book on the matter, who helped us piece together this anatomy of a (near) disaster...

More on the Making of the Goldsboro Broken Arrow

The Goldsboro Broken Arrow by Joel Dobson When retired Air Force officer Joel Dobson contacted me with news he'd written a book about the near annihilation, I couldn't wait to get my hands on it. All my life, I'd heard vague claims of fire in the sky; I wanted facts and figures. On that, The Goldsboro Broken Arrow delivers. Dobson's SAC credentials shows through as he lists the risks of nuclear brinkmanship with a war planner's dead-eyed detachment. That's what a story like this requires. This is by far the definitive account of the incident and among those diagrams, charts and photos lie the bones of a blockbuster. Hear me, Hollywood: King Kong ain't got nuthin on the likes of Scott Tulloch, Jack ReVelle and Adam Mattocks.

Adam Mattox, Crash SurvivorThat's Lieutenant Adam Mattocks, thank you very much. He was aboard the B-52 Stratofortress when it developed a fuel leak, as a back-up pilot withOUT an ejection seat. When the aircraft began to break apart he dove through an opening in the crumbling behemoth. Miraculously, he made it safely to the ground, where a rural family didn't know what to make of the tall black man with a parachute on his back standing on their front porch. Fifty one years later, Mattocks welcomed Bob Buckley and I up their own porch as we dragged lights and tripod inside. His lovely wife held the family dachshund as the man who fell to Earth recounted every inch of his descent.    

H-Bomb in a treeOf course, much of what Mattocks described would be hard to imagine without any visual proof. Luckily for those of us in the eyeball business, a treasure trove of evidence has slowly been unearthed. Author Joel Dobson deserves endless credit for compiling what does exist and his enthusiasm for the project didn't end when his book hit the presses. The wreckage, the crew, the area of impact: seeing leads to believing. Among the many photos he provided, this one proved to be the most iconic. Hey, I don't care how shrewd a wordsmith you are, nothing conveys the idea of global disaster averted like a picture of an eleven foot long thermonuclear bomb hanging from a neighborhood tree.     

Bill Reaves, EyewitnessOne person who doesn't need a picture album to remember that white hot winter night is Billy Reeves. He was eighteen years old when parts of the B-52 and its deadly payload struck the Faro farmland across from his home. Reeves saw it all and even helped the Air Force with the extraordinary search that followed. For half a century he's assured anyone who doubted this story's veracity that the sky did indeed turn red that night. When Bob and I met Reeves in that fabled field, he surprised me by reeling off names of the many Pittmans we both knew. Then he told me what his own family thought the night vessels of death rained down from above. "Mama thought it was End Times." he said.

She was almost right.


Liv said...

I've heard about this! Scary, scary stuff.

Getawaymoments said...

Top shelf work.

Hanna said...

interesting post

Michael H. Maggelet said...

Bomb 2 was not "one step away" from detonation. In fact, it took 19 steps by the aircrew alone to pre-arm the bomb and intentionally drop it. This required the actions of the pilot and radar navigator to work in unison using the Aircraft Monitoring and Control Equipment (T-380 and T-249).
The bomb could only be armed through the AMAC and precise voltage and amperage applied through the AMAC equipment. There were additional safety devices in the aircraft and weapon which blocked any voltage from reaching the bomb's X-Unit. This included the Ready/Safe Switch (which could only be electrically armed via the pilot and radar nav), the X-Unit Rotary Safing Switch, and the Trajectory Arm Switch. Since none of these safety devices had their circuitry opened via the Ready/Safe switch, power from the High Voltage Thermal Battery (HVTB)could not be applied to charge the X-Unit. The HVTB was not even activated in Bomb 2, so there was not the least possibility of a nuclear detonation. The fact that the bomb hit the earth and the high explosives did not detonate also speaks much for the safety of the nuclear system (one point safety). The uranium component, the secondary, has probably dissolved by now due to the action of water. This info is declassified and available from books Jim Oskins and I have written.
While the info is a little technical, you can read the declassified reports compiled by Jim and myself in "Broken Arrow, The Declassified History of U.S. Nuclear Weapons Accidents" (2008). It's available from and other booksellers. Our second book is callled "Broken Arrow, Volume II- A Disclosure of Significant U.S., Soviet, and British Nuclear Weapons Incidents and Accidents, 1945-2008".


Michael H. Maggelet
USAF, Retired, Nuclear Weapons Team Chief

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