Around midnight on January 23rd, 1961, a lone B-52 Stratofortress bomber cruised along the American Atlantic coastline. It carried eight crewmen and two MK-39 thermonuclear warheads—each of them 250 times more powerful than the atomic bombs that devastated Hiroshima.
Despite nearing the tail-end of a 25-hour flight, its pilot, Major Walter Scott Tulloch kept a steady focus behind the yoke as he eased the ship into position behind an airborne fuel tanker.
This was their second refuel of the mission and one of hundreds he’d logged during his years as a bomber pilot. It was with little conscious effort that he held the plane perfectly steady for the tanker to guide a fuel line to its nose.
The airborne refueling process, 25-hour flight missions—none of these were a novelty to Tulloch or his crew—they’d been carrying out mirror copies of these missions for months now as part of the US nuclear response strategy: if ground forces were wiped out by a sudden nuclear attack from the Soviet Union, Major Tulloch and any other airborne bombers would launch an immediate nuclear airstrike against the motherland in retaliation—Petrov’s worst fears brought to fruition.
On this night their monotony would be broken.
A voice crackled over the cockpit radio—“Pilot, it looks like you’ve got a fuel leak coming from your right wing.”
Just after, one of the crew members reported fuel leaking into the bomb bay and soaking the wheel wells. Tulloch rattled a quick command, ordering the crew to shut off all non-essential breakers to prevent any potential sparks.
The fuel tanker detached its line from the B-25 and Tulloch banked the plane and turned the nose toward the coastline and Seymour Johnson Air Force Base in Goldsboro, North Carolina.
An eerie silence haunted the crew as their wounded ship droned over the North Carolinian countryside. In the bomb bay the two thermonuclear bombs hung in their mounts. At the front of each was a horizontal arming pin that, when removed, would activate their detonation sequence. The chain lanyards attached to the pins tinkled against the olive-green steel of the bomb casings.
Far below, Americans slept—blissfully unaware that unimaginable catastrophe was a hair’s breadth away.
About twelve miles from the base, Tulloch eased the plane below 10,000 feet and dropped the landing gears in preparation for a long, steady landing. But just as they settled into their descent path, a boom echoed through the aircraft and the yoke jerked left. Tulloch straightened it out just as another boom shuddered the plane and swung it hard right. He and the copilot both yanked as hard as they could, but it quickly became clear they had lost control of the ship. Tulloch gave the order to bail out.
He and his co-pilot Richard Rardin jumped from the aircraft in quick succession, deploying their parachutes a few hundred feet from each other. Tulloch pulled on his guide lines to spin himself around. He scanned the midnight air and saw four other parachutes including Rardin’s. He prayed the other three crew members had made it out. And then, in the blanket of sudden silence, he watched helplessly as the doomed B-25 disappeared into the darkness.
The B-25 slid into a haphazard spin. Centrifugal force pressed the three remaining crewmen against the cold fuselage as they fought for their exits. The plane creaked and moaned and the air screamed against the roar of the engines. The bombs rattled.
The airplane began to break apart over a tobacco field in Faro, North Carolina. Rivets popped and the aluminum skin on the wings and fuselage tore like tin foil. One of the bombs broke free from the bay and deployed its parachute, drifting down to land harmlessly in a tree with its arming pin safely intact.
Part of the second bomb’s mount snapped loose and the lanyard caught on a jagged spear of torn aluminum. The safety pin pulled free, arming the Bisch generator which provided the bomb’s internal power. It then broke completely free from the bomb bay and in the process extracted the deployment cable which whirred the generator to life. The warhead slipped out of the blossoming midair wreckage and began its detonation sequence. The baroswitch arming system began calculating the optimal detonation altitude to inflict maximum damage—a 100% kill zone of seventeen miles would surround the initial blast, and lethal nuclear fallout would seep through Washington, Baltimore, Philadelphia, and New York.
The precision mechanisms inside the warhead were ticking along as intended: The Bisch generator, the baroswitch arming system, high and low voltage thermal battery activation—everything except the parachute deployment. Because its chute failed to deploy, the bomb screamed into the tobacco field at 700 miles per hour and barreled into the mud, scattering debris in all directions and rocketing its plutonium core into the night air. The secondary core, comprised of weapons-grade uranium, burrowed some 200 feet into the earth.
Hours later, a recovery team led by munitions expert Lieutenant Dr. Jack ReVelle entered the crash sites and began a cleanup process that would remain shrouded in mystery for over fifty years.
The first bomb was found resting against a tree with its parachute entangled in branches. The team used a crane to ease it carefully onto a flatbed and haul it away.
At the impact site of the second bomb, they were presented with a quagmire of debris. They began to sift through the jetsam, collecting everything they could. ReVelle and his men spent two days in the tobacco field, with little food, in the freezing sleet and snow, working on shifts to dig through the wreckage.