An Air Force B-1B bomber, flying unmanned after its crew ejected safely minutes earlier, plowed into a muddy cow pasture and exploded Wednesday in rural western Kentucky.
The plane barely missed a farmhouse, crashing four miles from this farming community of 3,300 people. No one was hurt on the ground.
The unarmed bomber flew roughly 12 miles after its crew bailed out.
Two crew members walking along the road were picked up by a passerby in a car, while another was found walking in a field nearby. The fourth’s parachute caught in a tree and he suffered head and neck injuries.
Randy Rushing, a volunteer firefighter responding to the crash call, said he picked up the co-pilot after he found him in the field.
“He mainly said that something went haywire,” Rushing said.
Rushing said the co-pilot, identified as Capt. Jeffrey Sabella, told him the crew was aborting the mission to fly back to their base when there was smoke and they lost control. The co-pilot told Rushing: “We bailed.”
The Air Force said the instructor pilot and instructor weapons officer were both in good condition in a military hospital at Fort Campbell, Ky. The co-pilot and another weapons system officer were reported stable at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville, Tenn.
The B-1B bomber was flying out of Dyess Air Force Base near Abilene, Texas, when it went down near Mattoon, a rural area five miles northeast of Marion near the Ohio River, said First Lt. Eric Elliott of Langley Air Force Base in Virginia.
The bomber was not being dispatched to the Persian Gulf and was not carrying munitions, Air Force officials said.
Military police from Fort Campbell, Ky., were securing the scene. There was no immediate word as to a cause. State police said the plane went down around 1:15 p.m.
The Air Force identified the crew as Lt. Col. Daniel Charchian, the instructor pilot; Sabella, the co-pilot; Capt. Kevin Schields, the instructor weapons officer; and 1st Lt. Bert Winslow, the weapons system officer, Pischner said.
Mark Williams, who lives about a quarter mile away, said he was picking up his mail when he heard an explosion, looked up and saw a mushroom-shaped cloud. The blast shook his pickup truck.
Williams drove to the crash site and said the biggest piece of wreckage could fit in the bed of his pickup, while the rest was reduced to pieces slightly larger than a dinner plate.
Jamie Riley saw the plane pass over the town of Mexico, about 14 miles from the crash site, and told the weekly Crittenden Press that the bomber was about 200 feet above the treetops.
“I don’t see how it was high enough for anybody to bail out,” Riley said.
Beverly Herrin told the newspaper the engines quit near Marion.
“I heard it roaring and looked toward Marion,” he said. “By the time it came into sight, everything was quiet. It was gliding at about a 20-degree angle.”
The B-1B “Lancer” bomber, one of three long-range heavy bombers in the Air Force arsenal, has adjustable, swept-back wings and can fly intercontinental bombing missions without refueling.
Designed in the 1970s as a nuclear bomb-dropper, the plane has been converted since then for conventional missions and is being deployed to the Mideast for the first time in a potential combat role.