Faced with peril over Indian Ocean, bomber crew focused on saving their lives

Thursday, December 13th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) _ For 15 harrowing minutes over the central Indian Ocean, Capt. William Steele could think of little but saving his crippled bomber and his three crewmen.

Then, suddenly, all four were dangling from parachutes, headed toward the warm, dark waters below.

``I wasn't scared at the time, just trying to go through all the emergency procedures that I could and then do my ejection sequence properly. I wasn't scared until I was actually in the chute on my way down,'' Steele recalled Wednesday.

He spoke barely three hours after being pulled from calm seas off the island of Diego Garcia in a textbook search-and-rescue operation.

Steele's Air Force B-1B Lancer had taken off from Diego Garcia and flown about 100 miles in the direction of Afghanistan when it sustained ``multiple system malfunctions,'' he told reporters at the Pentagon in a satellite telephone interview from the Navy ship that rescued the four.

Steele, the pilot, would not describe the malfunctions but said they caused the supersonic bomber to go ``out of control,'' leading him to order the crew to eject.

``We're all pretty bruised up and have some cuts, but overall we're doing very well,'' he said from the USS Russell, a guided missile destroyer that rushed to the crash site and launched a small boat to rescue the crew in darkness.

He said his injuries were sustained during ejection from the bomber, which he described as ``about the most violent thing I've ever felt.''

After arriving at the air base on Diego Garcia about 6 a.m. Thursday (7 p.m. EST Wednesday) the four B-1B crew members underwent medical evaluation by Air Force and Navy doctors, according to Army Lt. Col. Stephen Barger, a spokesman at U.S. Pacific Command in Hawaii.

Navy Cmdr. Hank Miranda, commanding officer of the Russell, said the rescue went smoothly.

``Everything worked like clockwork,'' he said, joining Steele in the telephone interview from his ship.

Steele said the crew spent two hours in the water before the Russell arrived, aided by an Air Force KC-10 that first located the downed fliers, maintained radio contact and pinpointed their location for the Russell.

The B-1B was the first U.S. airplane lost in the war in Afghanistan. B-1Bs and B-52s have made almost daily bombing runs over Afghanistan from the start; in recent weeks they have been pounding al-Qaida mountain hide-outs in the Tora Bora region.

Diego Garcia is about 2,500 miles from Afghanistan.

The USS Russell was operating off Diego Garcia, although its home port is Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.

Maj. Brandon Nugent, mission commander on the KC-10 tanker which first contacted the downed crew, told reporters his plane was flying an unrelated mission when it heard the bomber's distress call. After picking up signals from an emergency locator transmitter, his crew detected a flare in the water and passed on the information to the Russell.

Two of the B-1B's crew members are based at Ellsworth Air Force Base, S.D., and two are based at Mountain Home Air Force Base, Idaho, Steele said.

The Air Force estimates the cost of a B-1B at $280 million.

Steele's was the first B-1B to crash on a combat mission since the supersonic long-range bomber became operational in 1986. The most recent previous crash was in Kentucky in February 1998; all four crew members ejected safely. The most recent previous fatal crash was in September 1997 in Montana; all four members of the crew perished.

The plane was conceived in the 1970s as a nuclear bomber but was canceled in 1977. Flight testing of four B-1A models continued, and the improved B-1B variant was initiated by the Reagan administration in 1981.

The B-1B flew its first combat mission in Iraq in December 1998.