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Brake failure caused B-1B crash in Qatar

Oct. 3, 2008 - 05:20PM   |   Last Updated: Oct. 3, 2008 - 05:20PM  |  
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The fire sparked when a B-1B crashed into a concrete wall at a base in southwest Asia caused $346 million in damage. (AIR FORCE)
The fire sparked when a B-1B crashed into a concrete wall at a base in southwest Asia caused $346 million in damage. (AIR FORCE)


Brake failure on a B-1B Lancer caused it to roll uncontrollably into a concrete barrier and explode, starting a fearsome blaze that destroyed it and damaged two C-130J Hercules at Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar on April 4.

That is the conclusion of the Air Combat Command accident investigation board tasked with looking at the cause of the $346 million mishap. The command issued the report Oct. 1.

Despite explosions and a fire that burned into the next day, no one was injured. The B-1B's four crew members aircraft commander and pilot Maj. Norman Shelton, pilot Capt. Brett Sailsbery, offensive systems officer Capt. Eric Alvarez and defensive systems officer Capt. Scott Martley escaped from the B-1B by climbing through a roof hatch and sheltering themselves in a drainage culvert. The crew and jet were from the 28th Bomb Wing at Ellsworth Air Force Base, S.D.

An Ellsworth spokesman said Oct. 2 that the crew members were not available for interviews.

The investigation board president, Col. Mick Guthals, a career heavy bomber pilot, said the brakes failed because a hydraulic fluid leak in a wheel brake allowed the high-pressure liquid to drain out within minutes of landing and before the crew realized there was a problem.

The accident is the second time this year a B-1B rolled into airfield obstacles because hydraulic problems caused its brakes to fail. On March 7, a B-1B at Andersen Air Force Base, Guam, collided with two parked fire trucks after making an emergency landing. There was no fire and the repair bill for the jet and trucks came to $5.8 million.

How it happened at Al Udeid

Here is how the Al Udeid brake failure led to a $346 million loss, according to the investigation report:

As the bomber returned from an 11-hour mission over Afghanistan, the crew reported no noteworthy mechanical issues with the 21-year-old Lancer other than a problem with the radar.

With a bomb bay holding 2,000-pound bombs and fuel tanks holding 40,000 pounds of gas, the jet made a normal landing at around 9 p.m. and headed toward the B-1B flight line.

But as the bomber taxied, the plane turned left by itself. Aircraft commander Shelton stopped the plane and realized warning lights were on, indicating problems with nose wheel steering and hydraulics. As a precaution, Shelton engaged the parking brake, but it malfunctioned. Shelton then tried the emergency parking brake. It failed, too.

Suddenly, Shelton was behind the stick of a rolling 230,000-plus pound jet with no brakes or steering.

The jet turned to the right on its own and began to go north along a taxiway at about 3 mph, aimed at a C-130 parking ramp.

Shelton countered the right-hand turn by speeding up the jet's right-side No. 4 engine, while keeping the other engines at idle. It worked but accelerated the jet to 14 mph.

Shelton decided to shut down the engines and slow the plane, forgoing steering the jet.

Now the aircrew had no control of the jet. The B-1B rolled off the taxiway and into a 7-foot-tall concrete barrier protecting the C-130 parking ramp. The impact collapsed the bomber's front landing gear but did not stop the jet. Instead, its fuselage passed over the wall and the jet rolled 53 feet until the engines and main landing gear struck the wall, stopping the bomber. The jet lurched downward, breaking open a fuel line or tank and spilling gas.

After discovering the entry door in the jet's belly would not open, the aircrew scrambled out of an overhead escape hatch. The officers used a rope to lower themselves to the pavement and into a pool of jet fuel nearly 8 inches deep.

The airmen ran to a meeting point about 100 yards from the jet's nose. Then explosions rang out from the jet, and they ran a couple of hundred yards farther to the safety of a culvert. The crew stayed in the culvert for another 45 minutes as the plane burned and detonations erupted.

Al Udeid firefighters arrived at the B-1B after the crew fled but called off their efforts to put out the fire when explosions began.

The fire was so dangerous, base officials waited 18 hours for the blaze to burn itself out. They also shut down fight operations at the base for several hours.

The concern was justified: When emergency workers combed through the wreckage, they found a pair of unexploded 2,000-pound bombs.

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