For weeks now, the Air Force has remained tight lipped about an incident involving America’s supersonic heavy payload B-1B Lancer over Texas early last month, acknowledging only that an incident had occurred, and eventually, grounding the nation’s entire fleet of Lancers, citing an issue with the aircraft’s ejection seats.
Now, as the Air Force prepares to return the B-1B fleet to an operational status, new details have emerged about the heroism on display in the cockpit of the Lancer that conducted an emergency landing at Midland International Air and Space Port in Midland, Texas on May 1st — and although the story raises clear concerns about the status of the Lancer’s ejection apparatus, it also offers a powerful glimpse into the professionalism demonstrated by America’s military aviators when faced with difficult, and even seemingly dire, circumstances.
The flight began like any other, with the B-1B from the 7th Bomb Wing at Dyess Air Force Base in Texas on a routine return flight when a fire warning light popped on inside the cockpit. The Lancer’s four-man crew, comprised of a commander, copilot, offensive systems operator, and defensive systems operator, promptly set about moving through the engine fire checklist. Reports remain sparse, but it appears that the crew consisted of a senior commander and what may have been three trainees, though by all accounts, they executed the aircraft fire procedures without issue. The fire, located in the aircraft’s number three engine (closest to the fuselage on the right wing) continued to burn as they approached the final line on the checklist you can only reach if every previous effort fails:
Eject from the aircraft.
The commander then issued the order to eject, a procedure that began with the Offensive Systems Operator located in the cockpit’s right, rear seat. The crew member followed orders, pulling the ejection seat handles and blowing the hatch from the roof of the aircraft but then something went wrong. The cabin depressurized as a rush of air was sucked from the gaping hole in the cockpit, but the Weber Aircraft ACES II (Advanced Crew Ejection Seat II) ejection seat didn’t fire. The Offensive Systems Operator remained right where he was, sitting beneath a hole in the ceiling of the aircraft atop a rocket propelled seat that hadn’t fired yet –but could at any time.
Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson told defense journalist Tara Copp that, “Within two seconds of knowing that had happened the aircraft commander says, ‘Cease ejection. We’ll try to land.'” For the crew of the B-1B, that was no small order. Wilson described it as “like pulling out the pin on a grenade and holding it as you come in to land. And not knowing whether the next piece of turbulence is going to cause you to launch.”
The aircraft commander then diverted to Midland International Air and Space Port to attempt an emergency landing. It’s difficult to overstate the difficulty and danger associated with this decision: the commander could have chosen to continue with ejection procedures in hopes the malfunctioning seat would eventually fire and assuring his own safety as well as that of the two other crew members. Instead, the decision was made to keep the crew intact, and somehow land the supersonic bomber despite it being on fire, sporting a depressurized cabin with a hole in the roof, and of course, one can’t forget the potential time bomb that was the seat with the ejection levers already pulled.
Soon, the burning aircraft touched down at Midland, and images began to surface on social media — though the story of the crew’s heroism wouldn’t reach beyond the whispers of the locker room for more than another month.
“The courage it took and the valor represented by that aircraft commander who decided, ‘We are going to try for all of us to make it, rather than sacrifice the one guy who can’t get out.’ Those are the men and women who choose to wear the uniform of the United States Air Force.”
The names of the crew members involved have not yet been released to the public.
Image courtesy of the Associated Press