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The Bone Sprung A Leak And Blew Up
by James Dunnigan
February 7, 2014

The U.S. Air Force has discovered what caused a B-1B bomber to crash in a remote area of Montana (northwest U.S.) last August. A mechanical malfunction led to a part of wing folding apparatus to tear lose and cut a fuel line. Some 3.2 tons of fuel leaked into the aircraft before a spark ignited the fumes causing several explosions behind the crew compartment. The pilots also lost control of the aircraft. The four man crew ejected safely and no one on the ground was hurt. All that’s left at the crash site is a large black spot on the prairie. The pieces of  the B-1B were collected and sort of put back together to aid in the crash investigation.

This was the first such airborne loss of a B-1B since 2001, when one became uncontrollable and crashed into the Indian Ocean near its base on the island of Diego Garcia. Again, the four man crew managed to escape unharmed. It was never determined what caused that crash, but the recent one was on land and the wreckage was reassembled to pinpoint the problem. Sometimes there are losses on the ground. In 2008 there was a loss while a B-1B was landing. The brakes failed and the aircraft crashed into a barrier. Some munitions exploded and the aircraft was a total loss. The crew escaped.

Despite these losses, the B-1B has come into its own in the last decade, doing excellent service in Iraq and Afghanistan as a “bomb truck” that can stay in the air all day and get anywhere it is needed quickly. The U.S. is the only user of the B-1B, and in 2012 the 10,000th mission was flown by one of the 66 B-1Bs then still in service. Not bad for a hundred aircraft that entered service in 1985. The last one was delivered in 1988. By 2000 there were 93 left and in 2003 33 of them were retired. Many of these were cannibalized for spare parts.

There are only 65 of the "Bones" (from B-One) left now, and none are doing what they were designed for; flying low and fast into heavily defended enemy territory during the Cold War to deliver nuclear weapons. But because the B-1Bs are twenty years younger than the B-52s, they were available for duty as much as the B-52s and became particularly popular over Afghanistan, where higher speed (compared to the B-52) enabled one B-1B to cover the entire country. On a slow day the single B-1B could hustle from one part of the country to deliver a smart bomb or two and then be off to another tense situation on the ground. This is the first sustained use of the B-1B and, by and large, the bomber performed quite well.

As a result of this and because of the new START nuclear-weapons limitation treaty with Russia the U.S. Air Force wants to keep 40 B-52s and 20 B-2s trained and ready to carry nukes. The B-1Bs will be restricted to just carrying smart bombs, which it has proved very good at over Afghanistan and Iraq. The air force also wants a dozen or so B-52s retained just for smart bombs as well.

During the 2003 invasion of Iraq the B-1B got to show its capabilities. While flying only five percent of the sorties, the B-1B delivered 40 percent of the bombs. The 216 ton aircraft can carry 34 tons of bombs in its three bomb bays. It's a 1970s design that entered service just as the Cold War, which it was designed for, ended.

The B-1B used to be more expensive to operate than the older B-52 because they hauled around a lot of gear that is not needed for the current counter-terror operations. This was the stuff that can break down and cause the aircraft to be grounded until the problem is fixed. The additional gear on the B-1B enabled it to travel low and fast, to evade enemy air defenses. New maintenance procedures have eliminated a lot of the need to keep superfluous systems functional. The air force also went looking for new maintenance solutions. For example, they paid close attention to new techniques developed by commercial airlines and air forces in other countries. All this helped bring costs way down. As a result it now costs $63,000 per flight hour for the B-1B, versus $72,000 for the B-52, and the $135,000 of the B-2.

The U.S. Air Force is also upgrading its B-1B heavy bomber fleet, a process that will last until the end of the decade. The 65 aircraft will get new cockpits (with color flat screens to replace the current monochrome ones) along with digital communications so that data, including pictures and videos, can be quickly shared with other aircraft, as well as ground units and ships. Finally, a new electronic test system is being installed to make it easier to find failing components and get them fixed.

One of the more useful upgrades took place in 2008 and a year later a B-1B used its newly installed Sniper targeting pod in combat for the first time. These pods enable the aircraft crew to see, in great detail, what's happening on the ground, even when the aircraft is flying at 6.8 kilometers (20,000 feet) altitude. For example, the pod users can tell if someone down there is dressed as a man or a woman or is carrying a weapon.

The B-1Bs, designed to replace the B-52 as America's "nuclear bomber," ended up as a bomb truck, with much of its high-tech gear removed or turned off. In that state the B-1B has proved reliable enough to compete with its older, simpler, cheaper, and still vigorous counterpart.

 


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