B-1 Bomber Fleet Grounded Indefinitely Over Fuel System Problem

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Air Force B-1B Lancer Ellsworth AFB
A B-1B Lancer assigned to the 34th Bomb Squadron, Ellsworth Air Force Base, S.D., begins to take off down the runway during Red Flag 17-1 on Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada, Jan. 27, 2017. (Airman 1st Class Kevin Tanenbaum/U.S. Air Force)

The U.S. Air Force has grounded its B-1B Lancer bomber fleet for the third time in three years, this time over a fuel system issue. 

Gen. Tim Ray, head of Air Force Global Strike Command, on Tuesday ordered an indefinite safety stand-down to conduct maintenance inspections on the fuel filter housing, according to a command statement. 

"During the inspection process following a B-1B ground emergency on April 8 at Ellsworth Air Force Base, South Dakota, a discrepancy with an Augmenter Fuel Pump Filter Housing was discovered," Global Strike Command said Friday. The War Zone was first to report the news.

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The Ellsworth-based B-1 began leaking fuel on the ground while taxiing to its parking area after landing, a command spokesperson told Military.com. 

"As a precautionary measure, the commander directed one-time inspections on all B-1B aircraft to resolve this issue," the statement added. "After further analysis, the commander stood down the fleet because it was determined a more invasive inspection was needed to ensure the safety of aircrews." 

Each aircraft will return to flight status when it is deemed safe, according to the statement. The command did not provide a timeline when all the bombers will return to normal operations; it is unknown how many might be affected by the fuel filter housing issue. 

"There is zero operational impact providing bomber task force support to combatant commands across the globe," the spokesperson said. "Air Force Global Strike bombers will continue to support anytime, anywhere if called upon."

The inspection process will involve "disassembly of the Augmenter Fuel Pump Filter Housing and inspection using the latest X-ray and blue light techniques," the spokesperson said. "After it has been determined that the unit is free of defects, it will be reassembled, pressure checked, and returned to service."

The stand-down comes as the Air Force is working to retire some of its B-1s, reducing the active fleet to 45 aircraft in order to better sustain the most functional planes. 

Congress authorized 17 bombers to be divested, used for test purposes or sent to a museum. To date, the service has sent four B-1s to the aircraft boneyard at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, Arizona, bringing the current number of B-1s in the fleet to 57, the spokesperson said Friday. There's typically an aircraft in backup inventory status as well, used for testing.

The service plans to retire the entire fleet by 2036.

In September 2020, Ray touted the Lancer fleet's progress, stating that its recovery and maintenance were well ahead of schedule thanks to concentrated resources dedicated to bringing the workhorse airframe out of its previous abysmal state.

Due to heavy use in the Middle East over a decade as the only U.S. supersonic heavy-payload bomber, the B-1 fleet saw repeated breakdowns and required extensive maintenance. The frequent deployments caused the aircraft to deteriorate more quickly than expected, Ray said in 2019.

For example, the aircraft flew 46,889 flight hours for overseas operations alone between 2013 and 2016, according to data provided to Military.com that year. That does not include continuous bomber presence missions, or shorter rotations to Europe and the Pacific.

The bombers deployed back to the Middle East in 2018 after they left the U.S. Central Command area of responsibility in early 2016. 

But by the end of March 2019, Ray had ordered a stand-down, marking the second fleetwide pause in about a year, after a rigged "drogue chute" was incorrectly installed in an ejection seat egress system. The 62 bombers in the fleet at the time underwent a careful inspection process and slowly returned to flight lines starting that April.

The command had grounded the fleet the year before over another problem related to the Lancer's ejection seats. That stand-down lasted three weeks while the fleet was inspected.

"The Air Force takes all incidents seriously and works diligently to identify and correct potential causes," the command said Friday, adding that an investigation is underway. "More details may be released when available."

-- Oriana Pawlyk can be reached at oriana.pawlyk@military.com. Follow her on Twitter at @oriana0214.

Related: The Air Force Just Retired the First B-1B Bomber

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