A U.S. Air Force B1 bomber on a simulated bombing raid crashed onto a Colorada mesa yesterday, killing three crew members, seconds after several birds were sucked into the engines and one engine burst into flames, according to Pentagon officials.
Three members of the six-man crew parachuted out of the disabled bomber and were rescued by a local police officer, Colorado police officials said.
Seconds before the gray-green jet plunged to the ground, a crew member radioed a distress call that the aircraft had "mulitiple bird strikes," and said the plane had "lost engines three and four, with an engine on fire," according to a Pentagon spokesman. "We're going down," was the final transmission, officials said.
"There are no recognizable remains of the plane," Virgil Cochran, a reporter for the Lamar Daily News who flew over the crash site, told The Associated Press. "All we could see was a black spot on the ground and a hole in the ground."
The bomber, on a training mission at the Air Force's La Junta Strategic Training Range in southeastern Colorado, crashed in a fiery orange ball at 11:34 a.m. EDT, about 2 1/2 hours after it took off from its home base at Dyess Air Force Base near Abilene, Tex., Pentagon officials said.
It was the first crash of an operational B1, the Air Force's newest long-range bomber which has been plagued by problems with its sensitive terrain-following radar, flight controls and electronic countermeasures systems. Officials said there is no evidence that any of those problems contributed to yesterday's crash.
Each of the bombers cost about $283 million. A prototype of the bomber crashed in a test flight over the Mojave Desert in 1984.
Air Force officials said the plane, carrying a crew of six students and instructors, was practicing bombing runs but had no weapons on board.
According to radio transmissions picked up by the Federal Aviation Administration, the plane's crew was flying at a low altitude when it encountered the birds.
The plane then climbed to 15,500 feet before it plunged to the ground, according to FAA officials.
Eyewitnesses said the plane dropped from the sky in a mass of heavy smoke and a stream of flames.
"I watched it burn and smoke came out of the back end of it until it dipped a little bit to the right and went over the horizon and just crashed," Greg Ricken, who lives on a dairy farm 20 miles east of La Junta, told The Associated Press. "And I just saw a big fireball plume up after that. It sounded like a sonic boom."
Howard (Bub) Miller, a cattle rancher, said the bomber crashed on his property. He told The Associated Press that the aircraft hit a shale hill, bounced, then exploded, breaking into small pieces scattered over 50 acres. Air Force officials declined to comment on Miller's statement.
The bomber was one of the approximately 60 B1 bombers that have been delivered to the Air Force by Rockwell International, which assembles the planes, Air Force officials said.
The B1 bomber is the Air Force's replacement for the aged B52 strategic bomber. The entire fleet of 100 B1 bombers, a $28.3 billion program, is scheduled to be in force by next spring.
The Air Force said three of the crew members were missing and presumed dead. They are: Maj. James T. Acklin, 37, of Champaign, Ill., the instructor pilot; 1st Lt. Ricky M. Bean, 27, of Farmington, Maine, the student pilot; and Maj. Wayne D. Whitlock, 29, of Johnson City, Tenn., the instructor defensive systems officer.
Air Force officials said the three surviving crew members were hospitalized in good condition in Colorado Springs. They are: Capt. Joseph S. Butler, 33, of Rocky Mount, N.C., student defensive systems officer; Capt. Lawrence H. Haskell, 33 of Harrisburg, Pa., student aircraft commander; and Maj. William H. Price, 42, of Yuma, Ariz., instructor offensive systems officer.
The prototype crash on Aug. 29, 1984, occurred because crew members failed to maintain the proper center of gravity with the fuel load during a low-speed, low-altitude flight over the Mojave Desert, according to an Air Force investigation.