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Ellsworth B-1B Lancer crashes in Montana; crew ejects safely

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B-1B Lancers at Ellsworth Air Force are grounded today after one of the $283-million bombers crashed Monday in a pasture in southeast Montana.

The aircraft, which was carrying a crew of four, went down around 9:30 a.m., 30 minutes after leaving Ellsworth on a routine training mission. It was one of 28 assigned to Ellsworth.

The two pilots and two weapons systems officers on the aircraft ejected safely before the crash, according to 28th Bomb Wing commander Col. Kevin Kennedy.

The aircrew suffered what Kennedy described as “minor, non-life threatening injuries.” Emergency responders from Broadus, Mont., provided initial care for the crew.

At least one, if not two members of the crew were flown by air ambulance to Rapid City Regional Hospital, Kennedy said. The remaining crew members were taken to Spearfish Regional Medical Center.

Kennedy withheld the identities of the crew, choosing to wait until all family members could be notified.

The bomber's crew included one of Ellsworth's most experienced and highly trained pilots and a weapons officer with equal experience," Kennedy said.

The mood at Ellsworth was somber on Monday, the commander added.

"No one likes to lose an aircraft. They are a prized resource," Kennedy said.

Kennedy has ordered all B-1s at Ellsworth to stand down following the crash. Kennedy said the order will remain in place until he is assured that it is safe for the bombers to resume flights.

Witnesses told a Montana newspaper editor that the plane appeared to catch fire or emit burning parts prior to crashing. Bill Stuver, editor of the weekly Powder River Examiner in Broadus, Mont., said witnesses told him they saw burning debris falling from the sky before a huge fireball erupted.

“It apparently kicked off a few flames and debris before augering in,” Stuver said. “Locals said they saw a fireball in the air and then parachutes coming down.”

Stuver flew over the site Monday and took photos. He said the parachutes he saw from pilots and crew who ejected were three-quarters of a mile to a mile from the crash site.

Stuver said the crash site is on ranch land and that one of the first witnesses to arrive on the scene was a rancher checking his cattle who showed up at the crash site on horseback.

“It’s several miles from anybody’s house,” said Stuver, adding that fire trucks began responding between 9 a.m. and 10 a.m. Monday.

The crash site, Stuver said, is in an area where B-1 bombers frequently fly low on training missions.

“I’ve been out there hunting, and you almost get buzzed by them,” he said.

Stuver said the site is about equal distance from the southeastern Montana towns of Broadus, a community of about 450 people roughly 150 miles from Rapid City, and the smaller towns of Alzada to the south and Eklaka to the north.

The crash site was impressive for the sense of total devastation it created, Stuver said.

“It’s really hard to tell it was a plane,” he said. “If I use my imagination, I can kind of tell it was a plane.”

A response team from Ellsworth left the base around noon, according to scanner traffic. The Ellsworth convoy's destination was given as Plainville, Mont.

The accident happened in the Powder River Training Complex, where the Air Force trains B-1 aircrews. Centered just northwest of where South Dakota, Wyoming and Montana meet, the complex spans about 8,300 square miles.

The air space over the crash site was closed to civilian air traffic on Monday, Kennedy said. The closure is not expected to affect local air traffic and the no-fly zone will be reduced as soon as possible, he said.

Stuver said the crash site is not far from the location of a 1997 crash of a B-1 that killed four crewmen.

The September 1997 crash was later deemed by the Air Force to have been caused by pilot error, though investigators were unable to determine which of those two pilots was flying the plane when the crash happened. Air Force officials said the pilots in the 1997 crash were performing an oft-practiced, authorized defensive maneuver in which a crew avoids a threat by slowing down and turning sharply, according to CNN.

The nation’s aging fleet of B-1s has experienced numerous problems in its 28-year history. The first B-1B arrived at Dyess Air Force Base, Texas, in June 1985. The final B-1B was delivered in May 1988.

The U.S. military has used the B-1B Lancer extensively in Iraq and Afghanistan. It is equipped with satellite and laser-guided bombs.

Kennedy said the aircraft that crashed Monday was part of the 1985 series.

The nation's fleet of B-1B Lancers was grounded in 2005 after the nose gear collapsed on a B-1 from Ellsworth. The planes were inspected and put back in service.

During an appearance Monday in Rapid City, Sen. Tim Johnson, D-S.D., said his “thoughts and prayers” were with the crew.

“I think the good news is that there’s no life-threatening injuries,” he said.

Johnson added that he was concerned that cuts under sequestration may have played a role in the crash. The sequester is a series of across-the-board spending cuts to federal agencies that took effect this year. Johnson said he was waiting for more details about the nature of the crash to determine whether it was a factor.

“I don’t know, but I will soon find out,” he said.

In April, Ellsworth's bombers that weren't deployed overseas were grounded due to federal budget cuts. The planes took to the air again on a limited basis a month later.

In mid-July, the Air Force announced that the B-1Bs would resume normal training missions after additional funds became available.

Contact Andrea J. Cook at 394-8423 or andrea.cook@rapidcityjournal.com

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