Four Air Force officers made a life-or-death decision to eject from their bomber when the cockpit quickly filled with smoke - apparently without knowing if the crippled plane would crash in a populated area.
Miraculously, the B1-B bomber flew unmanned for 12 miles, over a community of 3,300, and missed a farm by 200 feet when it crashed and exploded Wednesday in a muddy cow pasture in western Kentucky.
No one on the ground was hurt, and all four crew members were hospitalized in good condition.
Billy Wayne Baird, of nearby Mexico, Ky., talked to one crew member who was picked up, bruised and scratched, walking along a rural road minutes after he had parachuted from the plane.
“I told him the plane went ahead and crashed,” Baird said. “He looked at me and asked, ‘Did it crash in a heavily populated area?’ He looked like it was a relief to him. He was concerned, I could tell.”
There is no specific procedure to avoid populated areas for crews ejecting from a crippled aircraft, but “any air crew is going to keep that in mind,” said Air Force Master Sgt. Sandra Pischner.
Investigators Thursday examined the wreckage, which was scattered in small pieces for nearly a mile over several fields.
The plane was one of 42 B-1B bombers based at Dyess Air Force Base near Abilene, Texas.
The plane, on a cross-country training mission, was flying at an altitude of 20,000 feet when heavy smoke filled the cockpit, crew members told rescuers on the ground.
Baird and others who talked with the crew said they described the smoke in the cockpit as so thick that they weren’t sure whether all had ejected safely.