LA JUNTA, Colo. — A B-1B bomber carrying six crew members crashed Monday in the Colorado prairie after birds were sucked into the aircraft's engines and possibly triggered a fire.
Three crew members parachuted to safety, authorities said, but three others were killed. It was the first crash of a production model of the $270-million B-1B.
The survivors were reported in good condition with minor injuries at the U.S. Air Force Academy hospital in Colorado Springs. "The other three crew members . . . are all dead," Air Force Master Sgt. Al Dostal said Monday night.
The accident prompted speculation by aircraft experts that the B-1 may have flown into a flock of geese or other large birds.
Sam Iacobellis, president of Rockwell International's North American Aircraft unit, which builds the B-1, said the aircraft's four General Electric engines are designed to ingest a single four-pound bird without significant damage.
Radioed About Birds
Bob Buckhorn, a spokesman for the Federal Aviation Administration in Washington, said the pilot had radioed air traffic controllers that he had run into birds during a low-level practice bombing run.
The pilot immediately began climbing and managed to reach an altitude of roughly 15,500 feet, Buckhorn said, but then reported that the two engines on the right side had caught fire because of "bird ingestion."
Iacobellis said it would be difficult for a human eye to see a single bird at Mach .85, (nearly the length of three football fields per second), the operational speed of the B-1. The fact that they spotted the birds may indicate the aircraft flew into a large flock of migrating birds, he said.
"The engine is designed to take a four-pound bird strike, but I would think this is more severe than that," he said.
Some Canada geese can weigh as much as 20 pounds, according to reference books. Geese have been known to fly as high as 29,000 feet.
Following the B-1's recovery to 15,500 feet, the crew attempted to eject from the aircraft. The B-1 has four ejection seats for its regular crew. The aircraft Monday was carrying two additional passengers, who were riding on jump seats. The evacuation procedure calls for them to exit the aircraft by "rolling out of the stairwell in the belly," Iacobellis said. That has never been demonstrated, however.
"We're going down," the pilot radioed, according to Laurie King, spokeswoman at Dyess.
The plane went down two miles south of La Junta at 9:34 a.m., said Capt. Dave Thurston of SAC headquarters in Omaha, Neb.
Howard (Bub) Miller, owner of the cattle ranch on which the bomber crashed, said he saw the plane hit a shale hill, bounce and then explode. He said the plane broke into small pieces scattered over 50 acres.
The Air Force confirmed the FAA's account, although it said it remained unclear whether one or two engines had caught fire.
Greg Ricken, who lives on a dairy farm 20 miles east of La Junta, said he watched the plane come out of the northeast and "I knew something was wrong--it was in trouble.
"I watched it burn and smoke came out the back end of it until it dipped a little bit to the right and went over the horizon and just crashed. And I just saw a big fireball plume up after that," Ricken said.
The cause of the crash was to be investigated by a board of officers.
The bomber, attached to the 96th Bombardment Wing, left Dyess Air Force Base in Abilene, Tex., early Monday. It was headed for the Strategic Training Range Complex near La Junta, about 60 miles southeast of Pueblo, the Strategic Air Command said.
At the training range near La Junta, crew members simulate bomb drops and are scored electronically by personnel on the ground. In October, 1981, a B-52 crashed at the range, killing all eight crew members.
A B-1 prototype crashed during a test flight in August, 1984, in California's Mojave Desert, killing one man and injuring two.
The B-1B is the first new long-range strategic bomber produced in the United States in more than 25 years. The first of the 100 B-1Bs purchased by the Air Force for a total of $27 billion were activated in October, 1986, at Dyess.
Sixty-nine of the planes have been delivered so far.
The surviving crew members were identified as Capt. Joseph S. Butler, 33, of Rocky Mount, N. C.; Capt. Lawrence H. Haskell, 33, of Harrisburg, Pa., and Maj. William H. Price, 42, of Yuma, Ariz.
The Air Force identified the dead as Maj. James T. Acklin, 37, of Champaign, Ill.; 1st Lt. Ricky M. Bean, 27, of Farmington, Me., and Maj. Wayne D. Whitlock, 39, of Johnson City, Tenn.