WASHINGTON – The Air Force said Friday it has punished 70 airmen involved in the accidental cross-country flight of a nuclear-armed B-52 bomber following an investigation that found widespread disregard for the rules on handling such munitions.
“There has been an erosion of adherence to weapons-handling standards at Minot Air Force Base and Barksdale Air Force Base,” said Maj. Gen. Richard Newton, the Air Force deputy chief of staff for operations.
Newton was announcing the results of a six-week inquiry into the Aug. 29-30 incident in which the B-52 was inadvertently armed with six nuclear-tipped cruise missiles and flown from Minot in North Dakota to Barksdale in Louisiana without anyone noticing the mistake for more than a day.
The missiles were supposed to be taken to Louisiana, but the warheads were supposed to have been removed beforehand.
A main reason for the error was that crews had decided not to follow a complex schedule under which the status of the missiles is tracked while they are disarmed, loaded, moved and so on, one official said on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak on the record.
The airmen replaced the schedule with their own “informal” system, he said, though he didn’t say why they did that nor how long they had been doing it their own way.
“This was an unacceptable mistake and a clear deviation from our exacting standards,” Air Force Secretary Michael Wynne said at a Pentagon press conference with Newton.
Rep. Ellen Tauscher, D-Calif., chairwoman of the House Armed Services strategic forces subcommittee, said she believed the Air Force had done a thorough investigation, but the findings were “a warning sign that there has been degradation” of attitudes toward the handling of the weapons.
Highest ranked among those punished were four colonels who were relieved this week of their commands, including the 5th Bomb Wing commander at Minot – Col. Bruce Emig, who also has been the base commander since June.
In addition, the wing has been “decertified from its wartime mission,” Newton said.
Some 65 airmen have been decertified from handling nuclear weapons.
After it was loaded with the missiles, the B-52 sat overnight at Minot, flew the next morning to Louisiana, and then sat on a tarmac again for hours before anyone noticed the nuclear warheads.