The Air Force B-1B bomber that gouged a half-mile of the Montana prairie, killing its four crew members, was flying lower and slower than normal, a rancher said.
“I thought that was kind of strange, but they do all kinds of different maneuvers out there,” Jim Watts, 41, said Saturday.
Watts, who said the bombers usually fly in pairs, said the B-1B “came over me real low and it was flying exceptionally slow for as low as it was, I thought. Normally they’re flying twice as fast as that.”
Watts said he then saw “a big flash of fire and just a hell of an explosion over the ridge.” Watts, who was herding cattle, notified authorities. Watts speculated the pilot had trouble and was trying to land the bomber.
A rancher who arrived later said the crash was so violent that the largest piece of wreckage was no bigger than a big bale of hay.
“Looking at the pieces, you couldn’t recognize they were parts of a plane,” said Sandy Thomas, whose ranch borders the crash. “There was a lot of black smoke and the pieces of the plane were scattered for about half a mile.”
Friday’s crash of the $200 million bomber 25 miles north of Alzada killed all four crew members.
The bomber was from the 28th Bomb Wing at Ellsworth Air Force Base, about 100 miles to the southeast near Rapid City, S.D. It was on a training flight over the Powder River Military Operating Area and the Air Force said it was not carrying any bombs.
Another rancher, Renee Macer, said she got close enough to the wreckage to see three crew members still strapped in their seats. The fourth man was found a short distance away and all were severely burned.
The victims were identified as Col. Anthony Beat, the pilot and vice commander of the 28th Bomb Wing; Maj. Clay Culver, assistant operations officer; Maj. Kirk Cakerice, the co-pilot; and Capt. Garry Everett, weapons systems officer. Ages and hometowns were not released.
“I knew what Clay was doing,” Culver’s wife, Cynthia, said in Rapid City. “He was doing the right thing, and it was a very honorable way to go.”
Air Force Col. Glen Spears, who was at the scene investigating the crash Saturday, said that searchers had not recovered the aircraft’s flight recorder, which could provide clues on why the plane crashed.
Spears said there was no evidence there had been a distress signal. He said it was likely that training would resume in the area next week.
He said it was uncommon to have so many senior officers on one flight.
“This was a very typical training mission,” Spears said.
At Ellsworth Air Force Base, Col. Will Fraser, the 28th Bomb Wing commander, told a news conference that the plane had been flown earlier in the day by another crew.
Fraser said it went down practicing low-level maneuvers, which are usually performed at from 400 feet to 1,000 feet above the ground at 500 to 550 mph.
The crew was experienced, he said.
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