Airman hospitalized after B-1 bomber crashes in South Dakota

by Tommy Grant

One airman was hospitalized Friday with non-life-threatening injuries after a B-1 Lancer bomber from Ellsworth Air Force Base, South Dakota, crashed Thursday evening, the service said.

The bomber’s four crew members safely ejected from the aircraft, which was attempting to land at the installation around 5:50 p.m. Thursday during a training mission, the base said on Facebook. The National Weather Service reported low visibility and freezing conditions at the time of the crash.

Three airmen were treated on base for minor injuries and released, the Air Force added Friday. The service declined to offer additional details about the incident, including the nature of the airmen’s injuries and the aircraft’s condition, but will investigate its cause.

“Our thoughts and prayers are with the aircrew and their families as they recover from this event,” Col. Derek Oakley, commander of the 28th Bomb Wing at Ellsworth, said in a statement. “It is important that we support each other as we work to learn more about what occurred.”

The mishap, just four days into the new year, marks the Air Force’s first major aircraft safety incident of 2024.

The B-1 is a conventional supersonic bomber that was delivered to the Air Force in 1985 and first deployed in combat in Iraq in 1998. It has been used to support the U.S. bomber presence in Europe and the Pacific, and to conduct close air support missions in U.S. operations in Afghanistan. It does not carry nuclear weapons.

While 100 B-1s were originally built, the fleet has dwindled to 45 aircraft based at Ellsworth and Texas’ Dyess Air Force Base, including the jet that crashed Thursday, according to Air Force Global Strike Command. Two pilots and two combat systems officers, who handle the back-end electronics and weapons in flight, fly aboard each Lancer.

The aircraft has suffered from numerous safety issues in recent years. In 2021, it was pulled from service after a ground emergency at Ellsworth revealed a problem with its fueling system, prompting a fleet-wide inspection. That stand-down followed one in 2018 after a bomber’s wing caught fire and its ejection seat malfunctioned. Another stand-down followed the next year over ejection seat concerns.

Still, major accidents are relatively uncommon among the “Bones.” Thursday’s crash may become the third B-1 mishap in the past 10 years classified as a “Class A” incident — those that result in fatalities or permanent and total disability, destroy the aircraft, or cause damage in excess of $2.5 million, according to the Air Force Safety Center.

Among Class A mishaps, B-1 crashes are even rarer. In 2013, a Lancer assigned to the 34th Bomb Squadron at Ellsworth went down in southeastern Montana after a fuel leak set off a series of explosions during a training flight. All four airmen aboard safely ejected from the aircraft, which was destroyed. Damage costs totaled more than $317 million.

In 2022, a cracked engine part sparked a fire that torched a B-1 when mechanics with the 7th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron at Dyess ran the bomber’s jet engine while fixing its hydraulics. Shrapnel from the blast struck one maintainer in the leg, causing cuts and bruises, according to an accident report following the incident. Damage to the aircraft totaled about $15 million.

In their accident report, investigators noted that fewer than 70% of the B-1s belonging to the 7th Bomb Wing could perform at least one core mission in the weeks surrounding the accident. That rate dipped to about 55% across the entire Lancer fleet in fiscal 2022, according to data provided to Air Force Times last May.

The Air Force is in the process of retiring its B-1B fleet after two decades of wear and tear in Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria tanked the aircraft’s readiness. The last Lancer is expected to leave service in 2036.

That fleet, as well as the service’s B-2 Spirit bombers, will be replaced by the highly secretive B-21 Raider stealth bomber now in production at Northrop Grumman. The first Raider flew to Edwards Air Force Base, California, in November and is undergoing flight testing. Ellsworth is expected to receive its first B-21 later this decade.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Courtney Mabeus-Brown is the senior reporter at Air Force Times. She is an award-winning journalist who previously covered the military for Navy Times and The Virginian-Pilot in Norfolk, Va., where she first set foot on an aircraft carrier. Her work has also appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Foreign Policy and more.

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