Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Hope Fades

It seems unlikely that any of the crew survived Monday’s crash of a B-52 bomber near Guam. The bodies of two crew members were pulled from the water in the hours after the plane went down; the search for the other four is continuing, but a senior Air Force officer said there is “no evidence” that any of the airmen are alive.

An extensive military and civilian search continued to scour vast expanses of ocean on Tuesday for any sign of the remaining crew members, said the 36th Wing Commander, Brig. Gen. Douglas Owens.

"We recognize, however, that the longer this search continues the less likelihood there is that we'll find survivors," Owens said a day after the crash 30 miles northwest of Guam's Apra Harbor.

Air and naval units are still combing the ocean along the island’s western coast, looking for the remaining crew members. The eight-engine bomber was scheduled to make low pass over the Apra Harbor area on Monday morning, part of Guam’s annual “Liberation Day” celebration. The event marks the return of the U.S. military to retake the island from the Japanese in 1944.

While the military has not released the names of the victims, family members said that one of the crew members was Colonel George Martin, Deputy Commander of Andersen’s 36th Medical Group.

Colonel Martin’s sister, Clarissa Clark, told a Columbus (Ohio) TV station that her brother was on the B-52 when it went down. Martin was a graduate of The Ohio State University medical school and had served as a military physician for 25 years.

Colonel Martin’s presence explains why the “Buff” was carrying six crew members instead of the usual five. When the giant bomber’s tail guns were removed in the early 1990s, the position of aerial gunner was eliminated, leaving the B-52 with a standard, five-person crew, consisting of a pilot, co-pilot, radar navigator, navigator and electronic warfare officer.

Reports suggest the crash occurred about an hour after the bomber departed Andersen. The crew was completing a swing around the island, before making a pass over the Liberation Day ceremony near Apra Harbor.

While the Air Force has not released details of the plane's planned profile, fly-bys are conducted at low altitude, typically around 1,000 feet. Given the crash site’s proximity to the island, sources suggested that the bomber was already at low altitude when it went down, about 25 miles northwest of Guam coastline.

At low level, crews have less time to react to pilot errors or in-flight emergencies, making it more difficult to eject. Sources indicate that the two bodies pulled from the water had inflated floatation devices, or LPUs. Those devices automatically inflate when the wearer enters the water.

However, it was unclear if the crew members tried an unsuccessful ejection from the B-52, or were thrown into the ocean when the bomber struck the water and broke apart.

Despite its age—the newest Buff rolled off the Boeing assembly line in 1962—the Cold War veteran has an enviable safety record. Before the Guam incident, the last B-52 crash occurred in 1994, at Fairchild AFB, Washington. That mishap was later blamed on the recklessness of the aircraft commander.

A detailed Air Force investigation revealed that the pilot had a long history of ignoring flight safety regulations, but his superiors let him remain on flying status. The Fairchild crash killed four members of that crew, including the Vice Commander of the 92nd Bomb Wing, who was making his last flight before retirement.

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