The 21st Century’s ‘For Want of a Nail’

B-1 bomber doomed when wayward part sliced open a fuel line during wing sweep in mid-flight

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Mike Stuver / Power River Examiner / AP

The main pieces of a blown apart B-1 bomber set fire to Montana pastureland last August.

A sign in World War II’s Anglo-American Supply headquarters in London displayed the adage that begins with “For want of a nail, the shoe was lost.” It quickly marches through several increasingly larger military problems, each triggered by the one that came before. It ends with “For want of a battle, the kingdom was lost.”

While the crash of a $318 million B-1 bomber last August 19 in Montana has no parallel to that war, the sentiment—that a little military snafu can quickly mushroom into a series of ever-growing disasters—is spot on.

Come along, if you dare, for the ride…

b1 in flight

Air Force photo

The B-1 Lancer in flight.

Call sign Thunder 21 took off from Ellsworth Air Force Base, outside Rapid City, S.D., last August 19 at 8:57 a.m. The sky was blue and visibility was unlimited as the highly-experienced four-man crew headed west to the Powder River bomb range for their first bombing run since returning from missions over Afghanistan. Major Frank Biancardi II was in charge, aided by co-pilot Captain Curtis Michael. Sitting just behind them were weapons systems captains Chad Nishizuka and Brandon Packard.

Eight minutes later, the Rockwell-built Thunder 21 (now part of Boeing) began to descend from 20,000 to 10,000 feet as the B-1 approached the bombing range. Powder River’s 8,300 square miles makes it about the size of Massachusetts. It straddles northwestern South Dakota, northeast Wyoming and southeast Montana, and ranks among the nation’s least populated areas.

b1 sweep

Air Force

The B-1′s wings sweep in mid-air for different portions of flight.

Biancardi ordered the plane, in a neat display of technological wizardry, to sweep its main wings back from their forward 25-degree angle to their swept 67.5-degree position. The variable-sweep design allows for boosted lift at takeoff (with a maximum 137-foot wingspan), but reduces drag and allows higher speeds during low-altitude attacks (with a more streamlined 79-foot wingspan).

As the left wing slowly swung back, it pushed a metal seal—designed to ensure smooth airflow over the variable wing—where it shouldn’t go. For reasons investigators couldn’t determine, the seal had come loose.

Oblivious to the slow-motion debacle unfolding just outside their cockpit, the crew concentrated on their mission as the wing slowly pushed the seal toward the 4.5-inch braided fuel line that feeds the pair of huge General Electric engines, each capable of generating 30,000 pounds of thrust, slung underneath the wing.

b1 baffle

Air Force

The circled baffle acted like an ax…

As the wing gradually swept back, the seal and what investigators called its “acute, v-shaped angle at the aft end” drew closer to the fuel line. Think of it as a slow-motion ax aimed at a hose throbbing with jet fuel. About thirty seconds after the sweep started, the seal—officially called an “underwing fairing fold down baffle”—pushed into, and sliced open, the top half of the fuel line.

b1 hose

Air Force

…when it moved and sliced open this 4.5-inch fuel line.

The plane had became a supersonic Old Faithful, spewing 120 gallons of highly-explosive aviation fuel every minute.

The crew continued its mission enveloped in the comfort only ignorance provides. The plane dropped to about a thousand feet for its bombing mission, and began a left-hand turn after one of the backseat weapons operators detected a simulated threat.

But the true threat was now sloshing through assorted compartments and chambers of the B-1’s left wing. Eight minutes after the slicing, there would be 1,000 gallons of fuel spilled from the sliced hose, with some of it running along the left wing and some streaming down the left side of the plane its crews affectionately call the Bone (for B-one).

When the fuel finally contacted a hot duct inside the left wing, it exploded, blowing part of the wing from the aircraft and sending the plane into a left bank. The crew felt what they described as a “violent” explosion, followed by a warning light and alarm indicating a wing fire. They quickly activated the wing’s main fire-suppression system, designed to discharge 90% of its suppressant within a second and choke off the oxygen the fire needs to burn.

But still protected by the grace only unawareness can offer, the crew already was beyond the point of no return. They couldn’t see the fuel turning into a huge flame behind them, generating a 300-foot fiery torch erupting from the 146-foot-long plane. The unseen flames were toasting the left side of the B-1’s fuselage—and one of the plane’s several fuel tanks, just inches away.

Ninety seconds after the first explosion, the Engine 2 fire light illuminated in the cockpit. A second later, the Engine 1 fire light came on. Biancardi ordered the B-1 to climb, and begin turning for an emergency 150-mile trip back to Ellsworth.

Thirty seconds later—after the main fire-suppression system seemed to have failed to extinguish the fire—co-pilot Michael activated the reserve fire-suppression system. But with pieces of the wing now missing, the suppressant—free to discharge into the sky—was worthless.

Then there was a second, deafening blast.

That fuselage-licking torch heated the vapors in the nearby fuel tank to 437 degrees Fahrenheit (225 degrees Celsius), the point when jet fuel automatically ignites. Within moments, the flaming vapors flashed through the B-1’s fuel-venting system, setting off “a cascade of catastrophic explosions,” in the words of the Air Force’s recently-released official investigation into the crash (Part 1 here; Part 2 here).

The crew had no idea what was happening. Far below, Chris Gnerer, a dirt-bike-riding rancher on his 2,000 acres of southeastern Montana, was an eyewitness. According to the Rapid City Journal:

He was searching for stray cattle around 9 a.m. when an orange flame caught his eye. Gnerer turned to see an object explode in mid-air about seven miles away.

Back in the B-1 cockpit, the controls went dark—the aircraft had lost all power. The plane pitched into into a leftward-rolling dive. “The rupturing of the mishap aircraft’s fuel tanks resulted in the severing of the electrical cables running through the tops of the fuel tanks,” the report found, “causing a complete and permanent loss of electrical power in the crew compartment.”

The power loss left the crew with no other option: the airmen had to eject. They left their aircraft at 10,700 feet above the ground while traveling at 460 miles an hour. A moment later, the B-1 fuselage split in two, along the perforations caused by the series of fuel-tank explosions.

Back on the ground, according to the Journal:

Gnerer was awestruck as he watched the object split into two flaming pieces. One exploded in a mushroom cloud on a neighboring ranch. The other quickly joined it, producing a matching cloud. Panicking, Gnerer called his wife. Krista Gnerer, a part-time nurse, was working in a town about 30 miles away that day. Gnerer told her he had seen something — a comet, a piece of the sun, just something — fall from the sky. He thought the world might be ending.

Back in the sky, “the helmets of all four crewmembers came off during the ejection sequence,” the crash report said. “Although the helmets appeared to be properly configured, each helmet had multiple failures, likely caused by windblast during the ejection sequence.” All four parachuted to safety with relatively minor injuries.

Thunder 21’s remains fell across 17 miles of pastureland some 24 miles east of Broadus, Mont. Gnerer helped rescue the downed airmen, who had to wait two hours for an ambulance to arrive at their desolate location.

The accident has several lessons, for both weapons and war-fighters.

First, K.I.S.S.—“keep it simple, stupid.” That’s another tried and true military saying. There’s a reason the B-1 is the last warplane in the U.S. military inventory with variable-sweep wings and the hazards their operation can pose.

Second, never underestimate the skill of a well-trained crew.

Third, for every airman, soldier, sailor or Marine in harm’s way, there’s a family somewhere holding its breath.

Captain Nishizuka’s older brother, Reid, died last April when his MC-12 spy plane crashed in Afghanistan, as detailed in this TIME report. Chad Nishizuka escaped the B-1 crash with only a dislocated shoulder.

Their father said he couldn’t believe it when he learned of his younger son’s near-death experience less than four months after his older son perished. “My heart just stopped,” Ricky Nishizuka told a Hawaiian reporter.

Why did Chad live? “This whole ordeal has made me believe in guardian angels,” their father said. “I really believe his brother was there to take care of him.”

A parachute lays on a field after a B-1B bomber crashed in a remote area near Broadus, Mont., Aug. 19, 2013.

Mike Stuver / Power River Examiner / AP

A parachute from one of the crew aboard the B-1 on a field after the crash.

71 comments
pbug56
pbug56

Swing wing planes are more complex, though with today's electronics could be made less so.  But they can provide a huge improvement to performance.  Thinking of the F14 Tomcat, a jet fighter that could fly well both slow and fast, but the 1960's electronics and servo mechanisms were very complex and prone to need constant maintenance.  Built with today's capabilities they would probably be far simpler mechanically.  

DeweySayenoff
DeweySayenoff

2 points here: Thankfully, the crew ejected and survived.  Thank GOD it wasn't a F-22.  The little fighter COSTS MORE.  (339-420 million, depending on accounting method compared to 319 million for the B1)

HenryMetternich
HenryMetternich

Still remember when this plane was being developed along side with the B2 Stealth Bomber. President Carter cancelled the government contracts and kept just the B2. Then Reagan was elected and he restored the B1 as part of his military build up and we spent billions on contracts to give the USAF 2 strategic bombers. Since then the B1 I believe has been grounded more than any other plane in the arsenal. Hate Carter if you like, but his decision to dump the B1 was the right one.

NZAircraftFan
NZAircraftFan

The B1B is beyond its sell by date it is just far too expensive to keep in service a F15 Eagle does the job just as well for far less cost per flight hour. I does amuse me that someone from Russia is trying to say the TU160 is a far better aircraft I would like to know what makes it so great apart from of course the Russians think that everything Russian is better than the west that is why we are all flying in Russian airliners. This article is talks garbage about variable swept wings the Tornado ground attack aircraft has this and not one has been lost due to faults in the wings and that has been in service since the 80s.

KevinWilamowski
KevinWilamowski

The B-1 has a reputation for bad or malfunctioning wing seals.  My dad's company used to repair them for the USAF.  The baffles would regularly malfunction when the wings swept back and the wing seal would burst.  Many of the wing seals my dad's company repaired logged many more hours of airtime than the new seals from the manufacturer.  

uc65chair
uc65chair

 This is a worthwhile story as an accident report/human interest story.  It's interesting reading, as far as it goes, but that's only about halfway through an introduction.  Issues identified but not followed up include: why did all the helmets come off?  what's being done about that?  Why did the "aft movable faring" (was it?) fail?  what's being done about that?  How the plane can spill 1000+ gallons of fuel without the loss being detected was answered, but only in response to a reader's question.  (I've read of a similar incident on a commercial airliner, but without the fire - just a low-fuel danger.).  What's the story on the other three crew members?  The matter of lessons learned is interesting and useful, and KISS may be one lesson, but readers are right to point out that simplicity isn't always possible, and wasn't the only contributing factor - and the fact the B2 is not a variable sweep design does NOT mean it's more simple!  I could do without the moralizing and melodramatic style of the article, but that's a matter of taste, not so much substance.  My main objection is that it wasn't a complete story - but it was certainly worth reading.


Read more: How a wayward airplane part doomed a $300 million bomber | TIME.com http://swampland.time.com/2014/01/06/the-21st-centurys-for-want-of-a-nail/#ixzz2pjt4C7TW

johnwayneflower
johnwayneflower

Thank god they ejected in time and lived to tell the tale.

RichardAustin
RichardAustin

A guardian angel would have fixed the flap before any damage occurred.

A fuel pressure sensor/ pump shut off would have saved us 300 million and from having to read this.

groonkame
groonkame

Would someone please tell the lame Tom Wolfe wannabe who wrote this that he needs to go back to journalism school and learn the difference between news reporting and throbbing sensationalist burbling?

JacobVoyles
JacobVoyles

some of you do have some knowledge of aircraft but whomever said the tomcat or f-14 is wrong they were plague with problems Thur out their first 7 years allot to do with sweep wings 13 pilots died in this aircraft in training alone 

formerlyjames
formerlyjames

For whatever failures there were, that system that shot them out of the plane and saved their lives apparently worked magnificently, and that's the one rarely deployed.   

WaltMiller
WaltMiller

This article was perfectly fine and interesting to the average reader on this site.



Walt

michaelgcrist
michaelgcrist

Good, interesting read... despite the whiners.


Stuff happens.  Not everything is preventable.


Otherwise... everything worked correctly (relatively speaking) and the crew survived.


The cost of the lost aircraft is miniscule compared to the SEVENTEEN TRILLION dollar national debt!

PaulBarnes1
PaulBarnes1

Glad the crew came out well that's the most important thing. It seems some of our military hardware may be too sophisticated, and keep it simple may be the right way to go. The V-22 Osprey comes to mind.     

TheIntegral
TheIntegral

Definitely a nominee for the dumbest article of the week.


There are so many errors and inaccuracies that it is hard to figure out where to start.


Fuel lines don't throb. 


The B-1B seldom if ever goes supersonic. It was not supersonic at the time of the accident.


The forward swept position allows the B1-B to loiter. It is not used just for takeoff as the article implies.


There is nothing simple about the follow on to the B1-B: the B-2. It is so difficult to maintain that it requires a special environmentally controlled hanger for each aircraft so the composite structure does not deteriorate during storage.


Variable sweep wings have faded from the inventory because they are not amenable to stealth.




HenryOjeniyi
HenryOjeniyi

It a shame for the destruction. We are lucky to still have those Captains alive, but somebody or some Gadget should have been installed in this $$Billion Machine to monitor excessive fumes from the fuel compartment. We should want to know why this was not done. If you ask me, I would say the greed for $$$$. Now we have to pay for the replacement of this Bomber. The same reason given by the Airline Industry for not installing Anti- Collision Monitor on Commercial Jets.

Peoples" lives are cheap compared to Profits and Greed.

GarthBock1
GarthBock1

There are parts of this that sound like the sound like the Challenger disaster.

johnsmith555333
johnsmith555333

This is another case of someone writing about aircraft that has no clue about aircraft.

SammyRayDennis
SammyRayDennis

@HenryMetternich Tell that to the thousands of military service men that this plane has saved by dropping more warheads on foreheads then any other bomber out there.


MattBowyer
MattBowyer

@HenryMetternich That's not entirely fair - the B1 costs a fraction of the price of a B2 (maybe a seventh of the price) and managed a much better ready rate - in 2001 they managed over 50% to the B2's 30%. Granted, a lot of the cost of the B2 was down to the small number made but even if full production halved the price, to make enough B2's instead of the B1 would have cost over $150,000,000,000.

Sibir_Russia
Sibir_Russia

@NZAircraftFan  

F-15 should be compared with the fighter of the same class of the Su-27.
Su-27 beat your F-15 in a demonstrative fights in August 1992. Training air battles with the F-15 in Langley (USA). 

tolson57
tolson57

@NZAircraftFan The F15 has no where near the payload or range of the B-1B.  The F-15 is a fighter and the B-1B is a bomber.

F-15: Payload 16,000 lbs Combat Radius 1061 Miles

B-1B: Payload 125,000 lbs Combat Radius 2993 miles

Sibir_Russia
Sibir_Russia

@NZAircraftFan  

Strategic aviation is an important part of our nuclear triad.
Today Tu-160 is the best in its class. This does not mean that we always and in everything "far better". 

tolson57
tolson57

@KevinWilamowski The F-14 also had problems with the wing seals however they use a flexible "bag" that when it failed simply caused an annoying increase in drag.

tolson57
tolson57

@JacobVoyles Sorry but I worked Tomcats for 20 years and there was never a case where a aircraft was lost because of wing sweep.  There were many problems in the first 7 years, the most deadly ones were flap/slat lockout and flat spins due to single engine failure.

ThomasHall
ThomasHall

Remember that the National Debt was less than $800 billion through Carter. Much if not most of it was accumulated through military and government spending as Reagan TRIPLED the National Debt during peace time. GHW Bush also added to it with costly military invasions and GW Bush more than DOUBLED it yet again with 20+ years of combined, unpaid-for wars based upon lies, arrogance, incomepetence and war-profiteering greed from the 435+ GOP-approved war profiteers who wasted hundreds of billions while failing in their nation-building and failing our troops in wars projected to cost $6 TRILLION as the lifetimes of war bills come in.

The GOP hate the government but waddle to the front of the line on government/defense contracts while avoiding military service themselves and subjecting our soldiers to stop-gap forced extended service and multiple deployments. Recall the three GOP aircraft carriers named after Ford, Reagan, and GHW Bush at $5 billion each. The USS Ford alone has gone over budget at $14 billion and counting. The F-35 is a costly failure, the F-22 is well over budget, and the DOD has not been able to conduct even an audit of its wasted finances with over $1 trilliion "lost" even acknowledged by Rumsfeld.

Republicans are responsible for nearly all US-Coalition combat deaths and woundings since Vietnam.

NZAircraftFan
NZAircraftFan

@PaulBarnes1 The osprey has had more than its fair share of teething problems and it was years behind and schedule and way over budget

msabot15
msabot15

@GarthBock1 because there was a fireball and the word "seal" in the article?  The two are night and day...  In this case, the "seal" move and penetrated a fuel line, and it would have probably happened in any weather.  The challenger was straight up ignorance of materials science.  The o-rings that held back the fuel needed to be a pliable rubber in order to seal.  The glass transition for this particular material was up around 48 °F, and it was below 32 that day.  The designers said it wasn't safe at that temperature, but NASA didn't want anymore launch delays.   The rest was history... To say the one was like the other is like saying a shopping cart reminds you of a Porche because they both have wheels.

Sibir_Russia
Sibir_Russia

@jeff.winch@Sibir_Russia  

Tu-160 is not a copy. B1 much inferior in a number of characteristics.

Tu-160 Maximum speed: Mach 2.05 (2,220 km/h, 1,200 knots, 1,380 mph) 

B-1A Maximum speed: Mach 1.25 (1,340 km/h, 721 knots, 830 mph,)

Тu-160 Total thrust engines 100 000 kgf

B-1A Total thrust engines 55 400 kgf

 

NZAircraftFan
NZAircraftFan

@ThomasHall Yes and Clinton lower the national debt to a surplus but then GW Bush come along and raised defence spending and of course started two unwinable wars.

Sibir_Russia
Sibir_Russia

@tolson57@Sibir_Russia  

The task was to create the plane with given characteristics (Total thrust engines 100 000 kgf, Maximum speed: Mach 2.05 and bomb load of 45 tons in the bomb bay.).
Due to the impossibility to create Total thrust engines 100 000 kgf of the two engines was decided to equip its four. The similarity is rather conditional. Our plane turned out beautiful. Much more dictated the laws of aerodynamics, which are the same for all.

 

tolson57
tolson57

@Sibir_Russia The USSR copied the airframe design of the Bi in creating the TU 160.  They did make it bigger and faster.  Also the B-1A was a Mach 2 + aircraft.  One of the reasons it was canceled was the expense that Mach 2+ added to the plane.  By changing the requirement to Mach 1 + for dash speed the cost of the aircraft was greatly reduced.  So the B-1B was introduced as a cost savings.

Sibir_Russia
Sibir_Russia

@Lordbinder@Sibir_Russia  

The main anti-tank weapons of the T-90 are also anti-armor-piercing projectiles (3БМ-42 and 3БМ-42M) and complex of guided weapons Reflex-M missiles 9М119М and 9М119М1 that provide defeat tanks М1А1НА in all areas of the frontal projection at a distance of 5000 m, Modeling oncoming battle tank mouth (10 T-90 tanks against 10 tanks M1A1 main battle tanks) showed that, starting shooting with a range of 5000 m , T-90 have time for the range of 2,000 - 2,500 m destroy to 50 - 60 % of tanks of the opponent.

bobc4d
bobc4d

@Sibir_Russia Just because it has a technical maximum speed of Mach 2.05 does not mean the operational max speed would be mach 2.05.  The a/c is not designed to operate at this speed for an extended time, it would use far too fuel, the structure would not withstand the forces put on it and the seals and gaskets would not take the extreme temperatures produced by such a sustained speed.

Lordbinder
Lordbinder

@Sibir_Russia  Russia has an Air Force? Ya right just like they have a competent Main Battle tank

Sibir_Russia
Sibir_Russia

@Stentor  

Up to 2015 will be upgraded and refurbished all Tu-160 are in service in the Russian air force

Stentor
Stentor

 Yeah, the best? A direct quote: "Entering service in 1987, the Tu-160 was the last strategic bomber designed for the Soviet Union. 16 aircraft are in use with the Russian Air Force although reportedly at times only 4 have been serviceable. A planned modernisation of 10 aircraft to Tu-160M standard has been announced but there are doubts about the ability of the Russian industrial base to deliver the upgrade and it may be dropped in favour of more new PAK DA bombers.

Like many Soviet weapon systems, the Tu-160 has struggled to overcome unreliable components and a lack of maintenance during the 1990s. The original systems were faulty and required a complete rework using modern microchips and computer boards, such that the aircraft was not formally accepted into Russian service until the new avionics had been tested in late 2005."

Теперьсноваскажитемнетоварищ,какэтолучший?Янезнаю,ятакнедумаю.

msabot15
msabot15


@RikGrn Why?  You do understand that this was what happened right?  Too much science for you to understand?  I'm not talking conspiracy stories here... There was a congressional hearing that produced this information.