Such was the state of the world in 1961 that the US had nuclear bombers in the air constantly, ready to respond to the Soviet Union if they decided to launch an attack.
The thinking was that, well, even if the Soviets destroyed everyone on the ground, those in the air would still be able to strike back. Mutually assured destruction, for sure.
But things didn’t go exactly to plan. On January 24, 1961, just four days after John F. Kennedy had been inaugurated as president, disaster struck over North Carolina. The incident was declassified back in 2014 and picked up recently by Atlas Obscura.
At the time, a B-52G Stratofortress jet was flying over Goldsboro, North Carolina. Inside its bays were a pair of Mark 39 3.8-megaton hydrogen bombs, about 260 times more powerful than the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Around midnight on January 23, the bomber was about to be refueled mid-air by another plane (a rather routine operation) when the refueling crew noticed that fuel was leaking from the right wing of the bomber, and the refueling was called off.
After keeping a holding pattern, the bomber was directed to return to Seymour Johnson Air Force Base. But on the way, the crew of eight lost control of the plane.
As The Orange County Register reported, the plane “lost its wing, lost its tail, spun out of control”. The pilot, Adam Mattocks, ordered the crew to bail out. He managed to survive by jumping out as the plane spiraled to the ground, along with four others. Three of the crew did not survive.
The plane crashed nose-first into a tobacco field about 100 kilometers (60 miles) east of Raleigh. Mattocks would later describe the ground as appearing like “the whole Earth was on fire”.
While disastrous, it could have been so much worse. As the plane spiraled out of control, its bomb bay doors were flung open and its two nuclear bombs were thrown out into the air.
One of the bombs deployed its parachute and safely ended up in a tree. Its arming switch had been kept in the “safe” position, so there wasn’t a chance it would go off. It was apparently quite easy to spot hanging in a tree.
The other bomb was a bit more difficult. Its parachute failed, and it ended up crash-landing in a muddy field, breaking into pieces in the process. It took seven days for responders to dig up the bomb.