A U.S. Air Force B-1B bomber out of South Dakota crashed Monday morning in southeast Montana.
Rancher Steve Stoddard was on horseback riding with his cattle about 7:30 a.m. when he saw the plane coming from the northwest, trailing fire behind it. Seconds after the bomber came into view, he said, there was a loud explosion and a big ball of fire.
Immediately after the explosion, the engine on the left side of the plane, along with all or a portion of the left wing, sheared off.
“It was coming apart in the air,” Stoddard said.
Stoddard said his ranch is about 35 miles east of Broadus, and the plane crashed about four miles north of his ranch house in Carter County.
A spokeswoman from Ellsworth Air Force Base in Rapid City, S.D., said the crash happened during a routine training mission.
The two pilots and two weapons system officers on board survived the crash after they safely ejected from the plane before it hit the ground, although some of the crew suffered injuries, according to Ellsworth’s public affairs office.
After the explosion, Stoddard said, the main body of the plane went into an arc and plummeted to the ground. Stoddard said he didn’t see the plane hit the ground and he didn’t see the crew members when they ejected from the plane.
The names, ages and conditions of the crew members weren’t immediately available.
Stoddard said he called the Carter County sheriff to report the crash and then rode past the bomber. He said fire and debris were scattered in a line about three miles long. His main concern was fire, he said, but the grass in the area was green enough that the spot fires didn’t spread much.
He then went in search of
crewmen, at the request of the sheriff’s office, and came upon them about three miles from where the plane crashed.
One or two other people, also local ranchers, were already on the scene. Stoddard said two crew members were up and walking around, though they had some cuts and were “pretty banged up.”
Of the other two, one appeared to have a broken leg and a concussion and the other had neck injuries. He said he and some others sat with the crewman with an injured neck and shaded him from the hot sun.
“They were pretty rattled boys,” Stoddard said. “It was quite an ordeal.”
By the time two ambulances arrived, one each from Carter and Powder River counties, other ranchers were on hand, as were sheriff’s department representatives from both counties and local game warden Troy Hink.
Stoddard said he was impressed with the crewmen.
“Them fellas were about as polite young guys as you could imagine,” he said. “I’m just damned thankful they all lived.”
Information on the cause of the crash wasn’t available and the Air Force will conduct an investigation into the cause.
“We are actively working to ensure the safety of the crew members and have sent first responders to secure the scene and work closely with local authorities at the crash site,” said Col. Kevin Kennedy, 28th Bomb Wing commander in a news release Monday morning. “Right now all of our thoughts and prayers are with the crews and their families.”
Carter County Sheriff Neil Kittelman was at the crash site, along with emergency responders from the area, and was not available for comment.
A Federal Aviation Administration map of temporary flight restrictions (TFR) initially showed a very large restricted area encompassing corners of Montana, Wyoming and North and South Dakota. The closed airspace, which was at first 240 miles in diameter, has been reduced to a small area in southeastern Montana and extends to an altitude of 23,000 feet. The site says the TFR is in effect until further notice.
The B-1 entered service in 1986 as a successor to the B-52 bomber and is designed to fly at high speeds and low levels in order to avoid radar detection. It is a variable-sweep wing strategic bomber. Only 100 were produced, with 67 still in service.
The bomber is 146 feet long and has a wingspan of 137 feet with the wings extended or 79 feet swept back.
Ellsworth’s 28th Bomb Wing includes 28 of the B1-B Lancers.
In 1997, all four crew members on a B-1B bomber out of Ellsworth died when it slammed into the ground near Alzada in Carter County.
The Rapid City Journal also contributed to this report.