WASHINGTON -- An Air Force B-1B bomber flying a long-range combat mission to Afghanistan crashed in the Indian Ocean Wednesday. A Navy ship pulled all four crew members to safety.
"We're all pretty bruised up and have some cuts, but overall we're doing very well," the bomber's pilot, Capt. William Steele, told reporters at the Pentagon in a satellite telephone call from the USS Russell, the guided missile destroyer that launched a small boat to rescue the crew in darkness.
Steele spoke about five hours after his B-1B Lancer crashed into the warm waters 60 miles north of Diego Garcia, a British-controlled island in the central Indian Ocean.
He said the crew spent two hours in the water before the Russell came to their rescue, 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, which entered its 67th day Wednesday. Air Force 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.
'Out of control'
Steele said his bomber suffered multiple malfunctions -- which he declined to discuss in detail -- which caused it to go "out of control." He ruled out hostile fire as a cause for the bomber's malfunctions.
He said he was not allowed to say whether he was heading toward or away from Afghanistan at that point, but Pentagon officials said the B-1B was about 100 miles north of Diego Garcia en route to Afghanistan when the crew declared an in-flight emergency.
The bomber headed back toward Diego Garcia in hope of landing there, but 15 minutes after declaring an emergency the crew decided they had to eject, Steele said. They parachuted onto calm seas at about 10:30 p.m. (11:30 a.m. EST).
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. The ship's commanding officer, Cmdr. Hank Miranda, told reporters that "everything worked like clockwork" once he got word of the crew's location.
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.
Victoria Clarke, spokeswoman for Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, expressed gratitude for the crew's efforts.
"This underscores what we try to remember all the time: the men and women of the U.S. military put their lives at risk every single day, and we are very grateful for that and we're thinking of them," she said.
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.