Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Day after Rockwell B-1B Lancer crash, Ellsworth investigators swarm debris field

Capt. Brandon Packard, a weapons system officer instructor, was one of four crew members who ejected from a Rockwell B-1B Lancer that crashed near Broadus, Mont., on Monday.
Courtesy photo

BROADUS, Mont. | Braden Garwood was on horseback searching for a stray bull when he heard planes flying.

He didn't think much of it. In this rolling patch of southwestern Montana, where military bombers regularly practice aerial maneuvers, that's nothing unusual.

Then he heard the explosion.

Garwood, 20, turned to see a mushroom cloud erupt in a neighboring field 15 miles away. In the sky, a chunk of flaming metal was still hurtling through the air.

"A big chunk of something just heading straight for the ground," he said. "And when it hit the ground it made another big boom and there was another big mushroom cloud of smoke."

On Tuesday, a day after a B-1B bomber from Ellsworth Air Force Base crashed for unknown reasons about 30 miles from Broadus, Mont., Garwood and other ranchers and ranch hands in the area were still making sense of the disturbance to their quiet corner of grassland and alfalfa fields.

By afternoon, locals estimated that more than 50 crew members from Ellsworth were on the scene, accompanied by a bevy of white pick-up trucks, diesel tankers, trailers and at least one ambulance. In the driveway of T.J. Cunningham, a rancher whose property now hosts the majority of the plane debris, the Air Force had erected five tents and a security checkpoint.

Military officials have cordoned off the crash site to the public and have released no further details about the cause of Monday's crash, which witnesses say occurred around 7:30 a.m.

However, officials confirmed that the four crew members are either still receiving treatment or have been released from medical facilities after sustaining non-life threatening injuries. All four ejected from the plane before it crashed, landing by parachute about a mile from the wreckage.

Locals describe seeing the plane disintegrate in mid-air before it crashed, scattering debris over several miles.

Ron Goddard, a rancher who has been in the area for 2 1/2 years, said Air Force investigators had begun flagging and examining debris that had landed on his field. He said most of what he saw was twisted pieces of dark green sheet metal.

Goddard said military personnel told him that clean-up wouldn't begin until they had thoroughly accounted for and cataloged the debris — a process which could take two weeks to three months.

Goddard said military personnel told him they were concerned with rounding up potentially unexploded ordinance, particularly given the state of some of the debris.

"They said it's still smoldering and some of it's deep in the ground," he said.

The Federal Aviation Administration has restricted flights to military aircraft only within a 10-mile radius of the crash site. The air space above the crash zone is closed indefinitely, according to the FAA.

Members of the four-man crew were identified Tuesday as instructor pilot Maj. Frank Biancardi ll of Methuen, Mass.; instructor pilot Capt. Curtis Michael of Albian, Neb.; instructor weapons systems officer Capt. Chad Nishizuka of Kailua, Hawaii; and instructor weapons systems officer Capt. Brandon Packard of Ashland, Ky.

Nishizuka's brother, Capt. Reid Nishizuka, died in April when a MC-12 aircraft crashed near Kandahar Airfield in Afghanistan. Capt. Reid Nishizuka was piloting the aircraft when it went down.

The Air Force declined to release additional details about individual members of the crew out of respect for their families.

When they ejected, the crew were strapped into Advanced Concept Ejection Seats known as ACES II. The seat is capable of ejecting a pilot with a rocket-catapult capable of producing an acceleration of approximately 12gz, according to The Ejection Site.

Ejecting from an aircraft is "a fairly rough experience," according to 28th Bomb Wing commander Col. Kevin Kennedy. The ejection subjects the crew to an "instantaneous load of g-forces," he said.

The aluminum alloy seat is highly reliable, he said. The seat's parachute automatically inflates within two to six seconds.

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