Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. A pilot survives a plane crash against all odds, despite having no exit point from the crashing plane, no safe zone to land in, and two failed parachute deployments on the way down. Did I mention the airplane was carrying two nuclear bombs? Did I mention one of the radioactive bombs is still buried under a cotton field- in North Carolina?
The Operation Chrome Dome program
January 1961 was just a typical day for the eight pilots aboard a B-52 bomber. Operation Chrome Dome was in full swing. For 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, multiple B-52 bombers carrying two Mark-39 hydrogen thermonuclear atomic bombs flew above the Northern Hemisphere, waiting for Russia to make a false move.
The B-52 could fly more than 8,000 miles in a single flight before requiring a mid-air refuel. In fact, each mission refueled multiple times before the crew’s feet touched the ground. It was during one of these refuels that Captain Walter Tulloch noticed the plane was not holding fuel like it should.
A problem with the B-52 Keep-19
The Captain of Keep 19 was ordered to return to the base in Goldsboro, North Caroline. At about 5,000 feet, the plane made its final turn and approached the base from the south. They were only 15 miles from the base when the plane broke apart.
“Tulloch had the B-52 lined up to land on Runway 26, but suddenly the plane started veering off to the right, toward the hamlet of Faro, North Carolina. Then it started rolling over and tearing apart.”
Controllers on the ground knew right away what was happening to the B-52. Boeing had recently added new fuel bladders to the airplane’s wings. It was not long before they discovered the modification could cause the wings to rip off. Keep 19 was scheduled for a re-fit in a few weeks.
The crew bails from the crashing aircraft
As the plane began shaking uncontrollable, the Captain knew the plane was doomed so he sounded the “bail out” alarm. The B-52 has six crew stations, each equipped with a escape hatch and ejection seat. Six members began initiating the ejection system which would launch four through top hatches and two through bottom hatches. clearing them of the plane before their parachutes automatically opened.
The youngest man on board however, sat in a regular jump seat in the cockpit. Adam Mattock, a 27-year-old African-American, was a jet fighter pilot who had recently been reassigned to B-52 duty during the Operation Chrome Dome runs. He knew nobody had ever bailed out of a B-52 without an ejector seat and survived. He figured he was a dead man. He looked out the cockpit window and prayed.
“Well, God, if it’s my time, so be it. But here goes.”
Fate can be a fickle thing
Mattock tugged the cockpit window open. He was climbing out when the unthinkable happened. The B-52’s forward speed stalled to zero and the plane hung, suspended in mid-air. It was during this brief moment that Mattock jumped from the plane, flinging himself as far away from the B-52 as he could.
But fate quickly reversed course. Because of his low air speed, his parachute did not deploy. Mattock closed his eyes and prayed as his body hurled toward earth. But then the unthinkable happened a second time. As he gained speed during the free fall, the fluttering parachute untangled, caught wind, and billowed open. Mattock prayed again, “Thank you God!” Then the plane exploded in midair above him.
The blast of hot air from the exploding B-52 collapsed his chute. He again began to freefall, leading a tangle of twisted cord and flapping fabric. Mattock recalls debris falling all around him as he plummeted downward. But fate can be fickle. After several seconds, the canopy caught a stream of air and re-inflated. Mattocks whispered, “Thank you God.” Then he looked down and saw the burning wreckage below him.
Mattocks had all but given up hope at this point. “Well, Lord, if this is the way it’s going to end, so be it.” Then an updraft from the flames below pushed him to the south, clear of the burning field of wreckage. He landed, unhurt.
On the ground, Mattocks packed up his chute, walked to a nearby farmhouse, and asked for a ride back to the base. At the gate, Mattocks explained to the guards that he had just survived a bailout from a crashing B-52. A black man dressed in tattered clothes holding a charred parachute was just too much for southerners in the 1960’s. The guards scoffed at Mattocks and arrested him for stealing a parachute.
Of the crew, one failed to eject and died. Another in a jump seat like Mattocks died in the crash. To this day, Adam Columbus Mattocks remains the only aviator to bail out of a B-52 cockpit without an ejector seat and survive.
The story however, does not end here. A witness to the crash recalls what it was like on the ground.
“Everything was on fire. The grass was burning. Big Daddy’s Road was melting. My mother was praying. She thought it was the End of Times.”
The recovery of the broken arrows
For many years, residents of the area were unaware how close the “end of times” really came. They call them “broken arrows” – unexploded atomic bombs that have survived an accident. In this crash, there was a pair of broken arrows on the ground in Goldsboro.
The two bombs were 3.8-megaton thermonuclear atomic bombs with more destructive force than all atomic bombs that had ever exploded – combined. Each had a half-life of 24,000 years. The first bomb hung from a tree, dangling from parachute cords, just inches from the ground. Robert McNamara, Secretary of Defense at the time, told reporters,
“The bomb’s arming mechanism had six or seven steps to go through to detonate – and it went through all but one.”
The unsuccessful recovery of atomic bomb #2
The second bomb however, presented a predicament. It struck the earth at over 600 MPH. Protective mechanisms kept it from exploding, however, it plowed 180 feet below the ground.
Government officials moved in quickly. Within an hour, the sky filled with ominous black helicopters as lines of construction equipment and green army trucks arrived at the crash site. The primary nuclear device, a conventional atom bomb, was recovered near the surface, but the 300-pound plutonium-filled secondary stage (a mini-atomic bomb that triggers the reaction in the primary device) lay 180-feet underground.
Using heavy excavation equipment, government contractors attempted to dig down to the hydrogen core but the hole kept filling with water. Eventually, they gave up and gave the word – fill the hole with dirt before things turn really ugly.
The government marked a 400-foot radius around the filled-in hole and purchased the land. The plot of land is still an active cotton farm today.