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This Day in NC History: Nuclear mishap in Wayne County field

On January 24, 1961, a B-52G Stratofortress Bomber carrying two nuclear weapons crashed in rural Wayne County, ten miles northeast of Seymour Johnson Air Force Base. At the height of the Cold War, United States policy was to keep armed aircraft in the air at all times in the event of a conflict.

Internal structural damage had begun inside the right wing during refueling. During preparation for landing at Seymour Johnson, major structural failure of the right wing occurred and the aircraft exploded at 8,000 feet. Three members of the eight-man crew were killed.

As a result of the breakup of the plane, two nuclear weapons were released. Seven of the eight arming, fusing and firing switches and devices in one bomb automatically actuated. Only a crew-controlled switch prevented a nuclear detonation. Since its parachute deployed, one bomb had only minor damage when it fell about a mile from the crash site. The second bomb fell free, without its parachute deploying, and broke apart on impact.

Historians believe that the Goldsboro incident was one of the closest near-disasters related to the Cold War because safety interlocks on the weapons failed, having gone through all of the steps to detonate, save one.

A highway marker commemorating the incident was dedicated in Wayne County in June 2012.

For more about North Carolina’s history, arts and culture, visit Cultural Resources online @ www.ncdcr.gov.

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