QUALITY IN THE FIRST PERSON
One man’s role in preventing nuclear disaster
by Jack B. ReVelle
For more on this article, listen to an interview with the author.
My introduction to quality was during an eight-day event more than 50 years ago. I was a 25-year-old first lieutenant and explosive ordnance disposal (EOD) detachment commander in the U.S. Air Force, stationed at the Wright-Patterson Air Force Base (AFB) in Dayton, OH. As far as I knew, "quality" was just another word in the dictionary. Since then, I’ve learned a lot about quality and how important it is. After decades of sworn secrecy, I am finally able to share the reason I dedicated my life’s work to quality.
On Jan. 21, 1961, I was woken by an early morning phone call. "Hey, Jack," said my boss, Maj. Herbert B. McClanahan, commander of the 2702nd EOD squadron. "I’ve got a real one for you!" He was referring to a broken arrow, which is the military term for an accidental event involving nuclear weapons.
A Boeing B-52 Stratofortress aircraft disintegrated following in-flight refueling over the farming community of Faro, NC, dropping two MK-39 thermonuclear bombs with a combined destructive force 400 times greater than the 20-kiloton bomb dropped on Hiroshima, Japan, which killed 135,000 people.1 The bombs didn’t explode. My job was to ensure their safe removal from the collision site.
I was flown to the Seymour-Johnson AFB in Goldsboro, NC, at more than 400 miles per hour in a Lockheed T-33 Shooting Star jet. I was met by an airman in a jeep who drove me to the site where the first bomb landed.
The first bomb was located near Shackleford Road in Faro, standing upright against a tree. My crew and I determined the nuke could be safely removed after deactivation. Using a large, heavy-duty crane, we shifted it into a horizontal position and secured it on a flatbed truck. The nuke was driven to the nearby AFB for further disposition.
Next, I turned my attention toward the second bomb, which we believed was lodged in a field less than a mile away. When we arrived, there was no evidence of the bomb itself—just a muddy crater about the size of a kitchen table. We used a tried and true, but not very high-tech, method of probing the hole with a long, wooden pole (wooden so we wouldn’t create a spark).
Eight days in a hellhole
At the outset of what turned into eight days in a hellhole, my crew and I had nothing but the knowledge gained in EOD training and an experience six months earlier when I worked on another broken arrow involving radiation hazards resulting from a fire that melted down a nuclear-tipped Bomarc missile at the McGuire AFB near Trenton, NJ.
Nothing could have prepared us for this broken arrow. No one ever expected two nuclear weapons—three feet in diameter, 12 feet long and 6,700 pounds that each packed 3.8 megatons of force and an eight-and-a-half-mile 100% kill radius—to penetrate North Carolina soil.
My troops worked like archeologists, using hand tools, shovels, pick axes and other items they brought with them to unearth the nuke. After we introduced draglines and tractors, we began to find evidence of the bomb—the parachute, detonators and explosives—in a slurry of mud.
On day five, we found the tritium bottle (which holds heavy hydrogen), the zipper (a high-speed neutron generator), the uranium pit and the arm/safe switch, which was visually confirmed to be in the arm position (the fifth of six steps required to detonate).
By the eighth day, we found everything except the secondary (the piece that increases the destructive power from kiloton levels to megaton levels). Because the other hazardous components had been recovered, the EOD crew and I were sent home. Local officials searched for the secondary for five more months. The assumption was that the dirt would slow the secondary down, but it continued to sink and was never found. I’ve heard it may be buried 100 to 150 feet deep in the field.
The U.S. government purchased a circular easement at the location with a 200 foot radius. No one is permitted to drill or dig more than five feet deep at that location. Today, that piece of the bomb rests in a tobacco field, just as it was more than 50 years ago.
I still contemplate the destructive power of the weapons. If just one of the bombs had exploded, the United States would have a very different shoreline along the Atlantic coast. It should come as no surprise this eight-day event, a brief flash in my 78 years, had a tremendous influence on my career in the Air Force and as a civilian. Whether the B-52 carrying the two bombs disintegrated in flight due to faulty design or manufacturing, there’s never been a question in my mind that poor quality was the cause.
- Read more about this incident in Joel Dobson’s The Goldsboro Broken Arrow, Lulu, 2011.
- Fact File: Hiroshima and Nagasaki, BBC, www.bbc.co.uk/history/ww2peopleswar/timeline/factfiles/nonflash/a6652262.shtml.
Jack B. ReVelle a consulting statistician at ReVelle Solutions LLC in Santa Ana, CA. He earned a doctorate in industrial engineering and management from Oklahoma State University in Stillwater. ReVelle is the author of several books, including Home Builder’s Guide to Continuous Improvement (CRC Press, 2010). ReVelle is an ASQ fellow.