An Air Force B-1 bomber on a training mission crashed in a Montana prairie on Friday, killing all four crew members, the Air Force said.
It was the sixth U.S. military crash in seven days. The rash of accidents prompted the Pentagon to order a halt to all military training flights for one day over the coming week. After the Montana crash, the Air Force pushed up its one-day suspension to Monday, instead of next Friday as planned.
The B-1 crash happened about 2:25 p.m. in the southeastern corner of the state. The bomber was flying out of Ellsworth Air Force Base, about 100 miles to the southeast, when it went down near the Powder River military training range.
Ellsworth spokesman Sgt. Gary Padrta said the vice commander of the 28th Bomb Wing, Col. Anthony Beat, was among the victims. The others were identified as Maj. Clay Culver, Maj. Kirk Cakerice, and Capt. Gary Everett. Their ages and home towns were not available.
“It dug a trench that was between a quarter mile and a half mile long,” said Dick Wesnick, editor of The Billings Gazette, who flew over the crash site four hours after the crash.
“There’s nothing left but debris. It was destroyed,” he said. “There was no evidence of a wing, a tail, a cockpit. I don’t know if they removed anything before we got there. There was no large, identifiable piece of an aircraft.”
Brian Parker was antelope hunting about a half mile from the crash site. He said the plane had been flying low and there was no indication of trouble.
“We saw the plane fly by,” Parker said. “It came around us and went behind the ridge, and then we saw smoke and never saw it come back out.”
The B-1B Lancer, the type flown by Ellsworth’s 28th Bomb Wing, is a long-range, heavy bomber that entered Air Force service in 1985. It can carry up to 84 conventional 500-pound bombs, or an undisclosed number of nuclear weapons, and fly faster than 900 mph. It costs more than $200 million.
The Air Force said it did not know if the downed plane was carrying dummy bombs, as most do on training runs, or live bombs.
The recent spate of aviation accidents has confounded defense officials, who say they can discern no common pattern that might explain the sudden surge. Each incident has involved a different type of aircraft and different apparent causes.
Last Saturday, an Air Force C-141 transport jet with nine aboard collided with a German military jet off the coast of southern Africa as a result of what U.S. sources say was an error by a foreign air traffic controller. On Sunday, an F-117 fighter jet making low passes during an air show north of Baltimore suddenly lost pieces of its left wing and fell to the ground, erupting in flames.
A Navy F/A-18 fighter jet then dropped into the Persian Gulf, and a Marine Corps plane plunged into the swamps of North Carolina. On Tuesday night, two F-16 fighter jets from a National Guard unit collided off the New Jersey coast during a training mission.
“This has been a terrible, tragic week for our Air Force,” Gen. Richard E. Hawley, the head of the Air Combat Command, said in a statement Friday night. “On Monday, we will stop flying training and exercise missions and focus intently on what we do and how we do it. We need to determine why these incidents happened and how to prevent any more mishaps.”
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: Deadly week Last Saturday - An Air Force C-141 transport plane collides with a German military plane off the coast of Africa, killing 31 people. Sunday - An Air Force F-117A stealth fighter flying at an air show near Baltimore crashes in a residential area after a piece of the plane broke off. The pilot ejected. Sunday - A U.S. Navy FA-18 crashes in the Middle Eastern country of Oman, killing the pilot. Monday - A Marine FA-18D Hornet crashes in North Carolina’s Pamlico Sound during a practice bombing run, killing the two pilots. Tuesday - Two Air National Guard F-16s collide off the coast of New Jersey; one crashed into the Atlantic, the other landed safely. The three pilots survived. Friday - Air Force B-1 bomber crashes on a training mission in southeastern Montana, killing all four crew members.