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B-1 Crew Makes 'Emergency Landing' Request in Newly Released Audio

A Rockwell B-1 Lancer sits after making an emergency landing at Midland International Air and Space Port on May 1, 2018, in Midland, Texas. The aircraft is a supersonic variable-sweep wing, heavy bomber used by the United States Air Force. (Jacob Ford/Odessa American via AP)
A Rockwell B-1 Lancer sits after making an emergency landing at Midland International Air and Space Port on May 1, 2018, in Midland, Texas. The aircraft is a supersonic variable-sweep wing, heavy bomber used by the United States Air Force. (Jacob Ford/Odessa American via AP)

"Is that an actual emergency?" an air traffic controller at Midland Airport, Texas, asks an Air Force B-1B Lancer crew experiencing an engine fire.

After someone interjects a quick "Yes," the voice replies, "Actual emergency. Alright, Bravo go."

The conversation is part of a recently released audio clip between the control tower and a Dyess Air Force Base-based bomber that had to make an emergency landing in May after an ejection seat didn't work following an engine fire. The audio was obtained and published by Military Times.

As the B-1, call sign Hawk 91, approaches the airport, air traffic control asks how many people and how much fuel is onboard. The response is four airmen and enough fuel for roughly four hours of flight time.

The B-1 is then assigned a runway.

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"Approach, Hawk Nine-One, airfield in sight, cancel IFR [instrument flight rules], we are going to be making a long, straight-in approach," one of the crew says. IFR is a set of Federal Aviation Administration rules requiring civil aircraft to use instrument approach procedures for civil airports. Approach procedures are different for military pilots and aircraft.

The tower tells the crew to maintain visual flight rules (VFR) instead. Once the B-1 lands, the crew tells the control tower it will be "emergency ground egressing."

In July, then-Air Force Global Strike Command commander Gen. Robin Rand awarded Distinguished Flying Cross medals to the crew, including Maj. Christopher Duhon, Air Force Strategic-Operations Division chief of future operations at Barksdale Air Force Base, Louisiana, and an instructor pilot with the 28th Bomb Squadron; Capt. Matthew Sutton, 28th BS weapons system officer instructor; 1st Lt. Joseph Welch, student pilot with the 28th; and 1st Lt. Thomas Ahearn, a weapons system officer assigned to the 37th Bomb Squadron at Ellsworth Air Force Base, South Dakota.

"Thank you for showing us how to be extraordinary. Thank you for your service. Thank you for your sacrifice. I have never been prouder to wear this uniform than I am today because of you four," Rand said during a July 13 ceremony honoring the airmen.

Officials said in a release that it was the first-ever successful landing of a B-1B experiencing this type of ejection seat mishap.

Weeks preceding the ceremony, Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson confirmed speculation that the Dyess B-1 had to make an emergency landing over an ejection seat malfunction.

The B-1 crew "were out training," she said during a June 18 speech at the Defense Communities summit in Washington, D.C.

When the crew tried to eject, "the cover comes off, and nothing else happens," she said, referring to the weapons systems officer's ejection hatch. "The seat doesn't fire. Within two seconds of knowing that that had happened, the aircraft commander says, 'Cease ejection, we'll try to land.' "

The incident occurred around 1:30 p.m. May 1. Local media reported at the time the non-nuclear B-1B was not carrying weapons when it requested to land.

Images surfaced on Facebook purporting to show a burnt-out engine from the incident. Photos from The Associated Press and Midland Reporter-Telegram also showed the B-1B, tail number 86-0109, was missing a ceiling hatch, leading to speculation an in-flight ejection was attempted.

Following the mishap, Air Force Global Strike Command grounded the fleet for nearly two weeks over safety concerns related to the Lancer's ejection seats.

While the B-1s returned to normal flying operations, both Foreign Policy and The Drive reported that the ejection seat issue may be more widespread than previously disclosed.

"While specific numbers will not be released, not all B-1Bs were affected by these egress system component deficiencies," Air Force spokeswoman Ann Stefanek told Military.com in a statement on July 19 following the news reports.

"The Air Force has 62 B-1Bs in the fleet. All B-1Bs are cleared for normal flight operations. We always apply risk management measures for flights based on the aircraft, the flight profiles, and crew experience," Stefanek said.

-- Oriana Pawlyk can be reached at oriana.pawlyk@military.com. Follow her on Twitter at @Oriana0214.

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