An Air Force bomber pilot was hailed as a hero for maneuvering his burning B-1B away from houses and trailer parks and into the cow pasture where it crashed after all four crewmen bailed out.
The crash in west Texas on Tuesday afternoon was the third since B-1 aircraft began flying four years ago as America's first long-range bomber in more than 25 years. Four crewmen died in the earlier accidents.The $204 million aircraft crashed shortly after takeoff for a routine training flight from Dyess Air Force Base, where 29 B-1Bs are based, Air Force officials said.
Three crewmen bailed out, then Capt. George M. Gover turned the smoking four-engine aircraft toward an unpopulated area and flew about a half-mile before ejecting, said Walter Gilstrap, who drove a pickup truck through fields to rescue the men.
"In my mind, what that pilot did was not only save the lives of his crew but the lives of civilians in the area," Gilstrap said.
The pilot avoided a sparsely populated area of farm houses and trailer parks eight miles west of Abilene.
"He rode it out for as long as he could and set it down where no one would be hurt," said Gilstrap. "They ought to give that man a Distinguished Flying Cross."
The Air Force set up a roadblock to seal off the site and would not speculate on the cause of the crash. Military investigators intended to examine the wreckage today, said Air Force spokeswoman Beverly Foster.
The wreckage was scattered over an area seven miles by two miles, said Al Dostal, another Air Force spokesman.
Gover and his crewmates - Capt. Michael E. Waters, aircraft commander; Capt. Charles M. Zarza, offensive systems operator; and 1st Lt. Anton Eret Jr., defensive systems operator - were all in good condition today at the base hospital, said Air Force spokeswoman Linda Gellnere.
The plane was flying about two miles north of Interstate 20 near Tye when smoke spewed from its left engine, said witness Lou Paulsen.
"At first there was just a puff of smoke, then fire," Paulsen said. "It looked like it started to go out, then it flared up big."
Gilstrap said he was near the Tye Truck Stop, where he has a knife-sharpening stand, when people around him started yelling about a plane on fire.
"I looked out the window and saw three parachutes and I knew what was happening," he said. "So I got in the truck and drove - I kind of had the coordinates figured out - I drove to where I thought they would be."