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B-1 bomber lands safely without nose gear

EDWARDS AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. -- A B-1 bomber whose nose gear failed during a training flight over Texas landed safely Wednesday, touching down in a cloud of dust on a desert runway after flying half way across the country. All four crew members walked away unhurt.

After circling Edwards Air Force Base several times and making at least one approach to get the feel of the runway, an Air Force spokeswoman said, the plane landed on its main belly landing gear at about 6:15 p.m. PDT and rolled for several thousand feet before the nose was eased down gently.

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The landing, on the same runway used by returning space shuttles, marked the first time a B-1 had landed with no nose gear, said Capt. John Ames, an Air Force spokesman at Dyess Air Force Base in Abilene, Texas.

Officials would not disclose what armament, if any, was aboard the plane, a long-range nuclear bomber.

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The four crewmen, Capt. Jeffrey K. Beene, 30, the aircraft commander; Capt. Vernon B. Benton, 30, the pilot; Capt. Robert H. Hendricks, 31, the offensive systems officer; and Lt. Col. Joseph G. Day, 39, instructor offensive systems officer, were not injured in the dramatic desert landing, said Dennis Shoffner, a spokesman at Edwards.

Shoffner said a determined attempt was made not to touch the brakes during the landing to avoid sending the nose plowing into the runway at more than 150 mph.

The plane landed in the waning daylight, sending a cloud of dun-colored dust billowing into the sky. The Air Force said it suffered some undetermined damage to its nose.

Runway 33, where the B-1 landed, is six miles long, 'so we had plenty of room to roll out,' Shoffner said.

Officials at Edwards, told almost seven hours earlier togear for an emergency landing, readied several emergency vehicles, which sped down the runway after the crippled aircraft.

The B-1 arrived escorted by two other aircraft, a T-38 trainer used to take pictures and an F-111 strike-attack aircraft used to keep the B-1 crew members advised of what they may have been unable to see for themselves.

'It's a comfort' for the crew of a disabled plane to have a chase plane nearby, Shoffner said.

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The B-1, attached to the 96th Bombardment Wing and part of squadron based at Dyess Air Force Base near Abilene, Texas, was on a routine training mission when it discovered its landing gear could not be lowered.

The plane circled Dyess for five hours before the decision was made to fly to Edwards, 1,125 miles west. It was refueled in flight before reaching Edwards.

'They worked on (the nose gear) for a while and decided they would divert to Edwards Air Force Base,' Patrice Scanlon, a spokeswoman at at Edwards said.

'Edwards has a history of being able to take emergency situations like this because of the dry lake bed, it's a natural runway if you will, and it allows for a lot of error,' Scanlon said. 'Basically it's the same dry lake bed that the (space) shuttle lands on.'

Scanlon said crew members had the option of using parachutes to bail out but preferred landing the aircraft without losing it.

At Dyess, Air Force Capt. John Ames said the B-1 took off at 8:38 a.m. CDT and at about 11:30 a.m. it experienced 'difficulty in its nose gear in the fact that it's not coming down.'

While en route to Edwards, the crew continued in vain to get the nose gear to come down.

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'The contractor (Rockwell International) plus other trouble-shooters were trying to figure out how to get the gear to come down,' Ames said as the plane flew to California, but they failed to correct the problem.

There are now 97 B-1B bombers in the U.S. fleet, 30 at Dyess.

President Carter scrapped the B-1 program in 1977 but President Reagan revived it and the first B-1B was delivered in 1986.

Of the original fleet of 100, three B-1s have crashed and the aircraft has developed a reputation as being 'troubled.'

One of the crashes was blamed on pilot error, another came after a pelican slammmed through the bomber's skin, rupturing control and fuel lines, and the third unexplained crashed occurred last Nov. 8 at Dyess.

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