U.S. Bomber Crews Flying With Broken Ejection Seats

A number of B-1 seats could still malfunction after a dangerous May mishap.

A U.S. Air Force B-1 Lancer takes off at Andersen Air Force Base, Guam. (Tech Sgt Richard P. Ebensberger/U.S. Air Force)
A U.S. Air Force B-1 Lancer takes off at Andersen Air Force Base, Guam. (Tech Sgt Richard P. Ebensberger/U.S. Air Force)

The U.S. Air Force is allowing the B-1 bomber to fly with broken ejection seats, potentially putting lives at risk in the event of an emergency.

Air Force leadership has deemed the supersonic B-1 fleet safe to fly now after an alarming mishap earlier this year in which one crew member’s ejection seat failed to fire during an in-flight emergency.

A bomber based at Dyess Air Force Base in Texas experienced an in-flight fire in May, and when one airman’s ejection seat failed to ignite, the rest of the crew refused to leave their friend behind. All four crew members landed safely but endured a harrowing emergency landing at Midland International Air and Space Port in Texas.

While the bombers are continuing to fly around the globe—one traveled from the Middle East to RAF Fairford in the United Kingdom for a military air show last week, then across the Atlantic to the United States—a number of B-1s still have problems with a component on the egress system, the Air Force confirmed to Foreign Policy. The service is working to fix the issue and is prioritizing the aircraft that will be going into combat, but officials declined to say how long it would take to fix the entire fleet.

The news comes as the military’s aviation community grapples with a deepening readiness crisis, and the rate of fatal aircraft crashes recently reached a six-year high. As of May 6, the military has had 12 fatal accidents—11 crashes and one ground incident—since October, killing 35 military pilots and crew, a recent Military Times investigation found.

The B-1 is a supersonic heavy bomber that first entered service in the mid-1980s, in the final years of the Cold War. The Air Force sends aircraft to public air shows such as the Royal International Air Tattoo, the world’s largest military air show, to enhance cooperation with allies and to raise its public profile.

Gen. David Goldfein, the Air Force’s chief of staff, told reporters on July 17 that a particular component of the egress system had been “crimped” over time. When the crew member pulled the handles, “the signal to the ejection sequence didn’t flow,” he said. UTC Aerospace Systems, which builds the ejection seat, referred questions to the Air Force. A spokesman noted that the company does not manufacture the aircraft’s egress sequencing system.

He said the investigation identified a “second pathway” that allows crew members to initiate ejection. “That’s why we allowed them to get back in the air and continue flying,” Goldfein said, though he did not give additional details.

But the pilot community may not be satisfied with the Air Force’s official explanation. Multiple sources told the unofficial Facebook page “Air Force amn/nco/snco” that Maj. Gen. Thomas Bussiere, the commander of the 8th Air Force and the Joint-Global Strike Operations Center at Barksdale Air Force Base, said that “code 1,” or fully functional, B-1 ejection seats are “a necessity for combat but are a luxury for training.”

The Air Force, when asked, did not refute the account of Bussiere’s comments.

Members also complained on the Facebook page of poor maintenance practices at Air Force depots.

“How the hell can he be a general with stupid a** comments like that?” said one commenter. “To me it shows a lack of leadership or concern for his people. A manager is concerned about the mission and a leader is concerned about the people.”

“And you wonder why pilots are leaving…? Here’s your sign,” said another. “The absolute total disregard for those under his command is an embarrassment … if this sort of sentiment is allowed to persist, it will end up costing lives.”

The Air Force also declined to answer repeated queries from FP about which component is broken, what the fix is, how many aircraft are affected, and what measures are being taken to keep the crew safe during potentially dangerous low-level or supersonic flights. An interview to discuss the issue with Air Force officials was scheduled, but then canceled.

Air Force spokeswoman Ann Stefanek would not confirm that the B-1 that appeared in the U.K. last week made the journey with faulty ejection seats, but she stressed that its transit was a high-altitude, straight flight similar to what a commercial airliner or military transport jet would fly. Those aircraft also do not have ejection seats, she said.

“We always apply risk management measures for flights based on the aircraft, the flight profiles, and crew experience,” she said. “There have been no higher headquarter-directed restrictions on the B-1 fleet based on the egress system.”

Correction, July 19, 2018: The in-flight incident on a B-1 bomber occurred in May. A previous version stated the incorrect date in the subhead.

Update, July 22, 2018: This article was updated to include comment from UTC Aerospace Systems.

Lara Seligman is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @laraseligman

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