'I remember a whole bunch of cussing'
How the Air Force almost bombed a federal dam
It was just about the time the B-52 started over Kanopolis Lake that the
spotter on the ground sounded the alarm.
In 30 seconds, the bomber was to release nine BDU-50 dummy bombs, but the
aircraft was barely visible. It was certainly nowhere near the intended
target, a clutch of shipping containers in the hills of the Smoky Hills
Weapon Range, several miles south of Brookville.
"The site called and wanted us to confirm 30TG out (30 seconds to go)
because they said we seemed farther out than that," the electronic weapons
officer on board later told an investigator. "Shortly after that, the pilot
was screaming, 'Withhold.' I remember a whole bunch of cussing. I heard the
radar navigator say the weapons are gone and someone say, 'We are over the
In fact, the crew had just targeted the Kanopolis Lake dam.
For two Salina teenagers swimming at the lake on that Wednesday afternoon
last summer, it was an astonishing sight.
"We saw it fly over, towards the dam, and then I saw three objects, maybe
four, went into the water," said Corey Armstrong, who was 16 at the time.
For the aircraft commander, it was a chilling moment.
"I looked, and it didn't look right," he told investigators. "I called
'Withhold,' but the weapons were already away. I looked again and saw houses
and thought we may have killed somebody."
They had not. Nobody was struck by the 500-pound bombs that had fallen a
mile and were traveling around 200 miles an hour. Fortunately, the radar
navigator pushed the release button seconds too soon.
"By following the jettison procedures and manually releasing the weapons,
the error was great enough that the nine weapons did not impact the dam,"
the investigation concluded.
How could an Air Force bombing team end up targeting a federal dam, nearly
nine miles from the intended target, even after the spotter on the ground
asked the crew to double-check the target coordinates? How could bombs be
dropped onto a public recreation area when military regulations require that
no permission to release weapons be granted if the aircraft is not in the
bombing range air space?
Some crew members suggested that the bomber's computerized targeting
equipment malfunctioned, but investigators said it was simply a case of
human errors -- several of them.
"It was crew error, period," said Sgt. Mike Andriacco, of the 2nd Bomb Wing
public affairs office. "They just screwed up bad."
The Kansas National Guard won't say whether anyone involved in the incident
was disciplined, but Lt. Col. Jeff Jordan said a number of changes have been
made to guard against a repeat of the mishap.
According to the Air Force, several members of the bomber crew were
disciplined. The aircraft commander and radar navigator had their flying
privileges yanked, and the copilot and navigator were put on supervised
"We can't have stuff like this happen," said Jordan, who until two weeks
before the incident last summer was commander of the bombing range. Today,
he's joint training officer for the Kansas National Guard.
A routine mission
The 2nd Bomb Wing at Barksdale Air Force Base near Shreveport, La., uses the
Smoky Hill Air National Guard Range for training missions almost daily,
dropping literally thousands of dummy bombs there each year. Live bombs are
never used, Jordan said.
The mission on July 19, 2006, was routine. The B-52H bomber, tail number
60-0059 and part of the 96th Bomb Squadron, was to leave Barksdale at 11
a.m., perform a midair refueling en route, and then fly over the weapons
range three times, dropping three concrete-filled dummy bombs, each time
from an altitude of 14,000 feet, onto Target 34, a point on the range nine
miles due north of Marquette.
Problems started the day before.
"Mission-planning day was busy for the crew," the report says. "All crew
members had conflicts that required deconfliction." Target study was delayed
and mission planning was relatively brief.
And there was an incident that day -- July 18 -- involving another B-52 from
the 96th Bomb Squadron. It, too, was supposed to drop dummy bombs on Target
34 at the Smoky Hill range. On each of three passes, the B-52 was to drop
six dummy bombs. The range control officer on the ground was to provide
visual confirmation that the bombs landed as intended.
The first set fell without incident. On the second pass a warning light
showed that one of the bombs was not released. But the range control officer
reported six bombs had fallen, the report says. The crew decided the light
had malfunctioned, made the final pass successfully and then headed for
The one bomb was in fact still in the bomb bay.
On landing the dummy bomb was jarred loose, causing $34,000 worth of damage
to the aircraft.
The crew that flew on July 19 was fully briefed on the incident, said Lt.
Col. Rick Mitchell, who oversaw the investigation.
The day started with minor setbacks. Engine problems delayed the departure
almost 30 minutes, the investigation said. The navigator described
preparation for the bombing run.
"We made the initial point in good time and I checked our Offset Aim Point
coordinates from the bomb form we had," he told investigators. Offset Aim
Points are landmarks on the way to a target that can be used as references.
"The radar navigator put in new OAPs from a different bomb form. We checked
all the OAP and all the points were good ... We entered the range and ran
the checklist. This was the second time I checked the coordinates."
A critical mistake
But a critical mistake had already been made, the investigation concluded.
The coordinates for OAP4, the Kanopolis dam, had mistakenly been entered
into the Offensive Avionics System as the target. It's a mistake that easily
can be made.
"If you are not careful and not used to dropping bombs, the way the (bomb)
form is laid out you can actually enter your OAP4 into the target
coordinates," the target study officer told the investigator.
The error moved the target almost 9 miles -- the dam lies almost as far west
of the intended target as Salina is east of it.
There were other problems. The target study officer never did approve the
bomb form, as is required, and the radar navigator was using two additional
bomb forms to provide offset aim points.
The B-52 made its first run at the target but was a fraction of a degree off
the intended path.
"On the first run we withheld because of a 0.3 Flight Course Indicator
deflection and we were in no hurry that day," the copilot, who was flying
the plane at that point, said in the report. "The withhold procedure went
fine and we talked about it."
But the aircraft commander was uneasy.
"During the bank, visually I thought we would be further from the lake," he
told investigators. "I thought the lake would be further back. I thought
this was odd. I did not see the target area."
The bomber looped back for a second try. It never had entered the bombing
range air space.
"We came back for the second run and we were centered within 0.1," the
copilot said in the report. "We made the required calls and we were cleared.
At release, nothing came off the jet. At this point we became very cautious
because the previous day's events were fresh in our minds."
People were puzzled
By now the commander wasn't the only one puzzled. The range control officer,
who was nine miles away and straining to see falling bombs -- visibility
that day was described as being 10 miles by one crew member, four miles by
another -- but had seen nothing.
"This is when the site asked us to check our coordinates," the navigator
told investigators. "The radar navigator brought up the coordinates and read
them off. They were correct."
The radar navigator gave a similar account.
"Smokey came back and asked what our target coordinates were," he said in
the report. "I read back off the screen to Smokey and they confirmed they
When the OAS computer was checked later, the coordinates it was targeting
were those of OAP4, the dam. Yet two crew members were claiming they checked
the computer after the second pass and the range control officer confirmed
the coordinates were correct.
Investigator Mitchell asked the navigator if he changed anything.
"We rechecked the system and noticed the OAP4 was in the target set and was
rounded. I did not do it and I'm 99 percent sure the radar navigator didn't
do it. I'm sure the OAS must have done it," the navigator said in the
report. " ... Somehow the OAP got put into the target run. I don't think it
was a mistype and the fact that the coordinates were rounded was odd to me.
I don't know why the target string changed. I feel the OAS did it."
To support his claim, he pointed to audio recordings of what happened that
day, which seem to confirm that he queried the OAS computer, asking it to
display the coordinates using a screen view known as Format 10.
"The only proof is the audio from the range," he said in the report. "I
followed along from Format 10. Sometime between then and hitting the button
at 4TG the coordinates changed."
Investigators say that's impossible. The military had a record of precisely
where the bomber flew that day.
"Denver center was able to provide coordinates on where (the aircraft) was
flying during this mission," the report says. "We know that the aircraft did
not enter into the Smoky Hill restricted area on any of the attempted bomb
How many bombs?
At this point -- after the second run -- the concern onboard centered on how
many bombs remained on board. The crew had tried to release three. The
aircraft was brought down to 10,000 feet and as it flew the bomb pattern for
the third time, a member crawled into the bomb bay. All nine bombs were
A fourth pass would be made, this one at just 5,000 feet, and the bombs
would be jettisoned manually. This was an alternate that had been discussed
Flying at about 350 mph and a mile above the ground, the B-52 made a fourth
pass. As it had on the other three passes, the crew noted crossing the
initial point on its way to the target. There is no record in the
investigation that any of the other Offset Aim Points were noted, but with
the "target" -- the dam -- almost six miles away, 60TG was called. It is
unlikely the range control officer was been able to see the bomber -- it
would have been more than 14 miles away, somewhere between the towns of
Geneseo or Kanopolis and the lake.
Just what happened, when, during the final minute varies by account.
"I looked up to see the lake and we called 30TG," the aircraft commander
told investigators. At that point, the bomber would have been a little more
than two and half miles west of the Kanopolis dam, just preparing to start
over the lake, and 11 miles from the range control officer. "At 24TG the
radar called the range. The ranges calls at 5TG to 'check your system, you
look further back than that.' "
The navigator said it was the radar control officer who asked for
"At about 20TG the site said 'You don't look 30TG out' and asked us to check
our coordinates," he said in the report. "I checked the coordinates and the
radar navigator said they were good. I had no reason to think they were off.
At 4TG I saw the radar navigator hit the jettison button. A second later the
pilot called 'Withhold.' I said we could not withhold, we had already
The copilot's account is similar but has the aircraft commander responding
immediately to the range control officer, an indication the range control
officer may have made more than one attempt to warn the bomb crew they were
in the wrong location.
"Following an advisory call from us, at 20TG, the range called and said
'Confirm, you look farther than that,' " the copilot said in the report. "As
soon as the site came back, (the aircraft commander) called back and said,
'Check your system. Withhold, withhold, withhold.' "
Changes were made
The concern, once it became clear there had been no injuries and that the
dummy bombs had landed in the lake, was that they had punctured the lake's
30-foot thick clay liner. Officials from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers,
which owns and operates the dam, have since concluded they didn't. The dummy
bombs have not been recovered.
The Air Force investigation concluded that the problem was solely caused by
human error, not equipment failure. It noted that the bomber flew to the
same location on every pass.
"The Offensive Avionics System appeared to be operating properly and without
significant navigation error, and the radar was fully functional," the
report said. "The crew ... turned just short of the range on every pass
while in the area. the coordinate in the OAS were not the correct target
coordinates for any of the attempted releases by this crew."
After failing to enter the coordinates correctly, the crew then failed to
double-check the information, the report said.
"The crew ... lost situational awareness in the Military Operating Area and
did not know where the target area was," the report said. "They had input
the Kanopolis Lake Dam as the target. They failed to use basic bombing
procedures that would have helped them maintain situational awareness. The
crew did not enter the Smoky Hill Range restricted area but believed they
Jordan, who is qualified as a range control officer, said that at the Smoky
Hill range procedural changes have been made.
"If the range control officer can't visually acquire the aircraft, we have
them read back the coordinates," he said in an interview at the range. "When
we ask them to read back the coordinates, we specifically ask them to read
back the system coordinates (in the OAS computer)."
The range now requires that a second person be in the range tower with the
range control officer.
"Five hundred pound bombs falling off-range is totally unacceptable," Jordan
said. "We live here. We take it very seriously."
And an unpleasant debrief was had by all...
Some of my friends boat at Kanopolis Lake. I go pheasant hunting just a couple of miles from it.
Someone could have easily been killed through this error.
Heck, as far as they missed the Smoky Hills Weapon Range by, they could have dropped those 500 pounders on my house.
Heads need to roll.
They aren't the first, won't be the last. I remember as a C-141 crewchief from McGuire watching the Norton crew get on the bus for the debrief after they missed the DZ at Ft. Bragg and "bullseyed" a Sheridan in the middle of a SF camp about 0330 one morning. Landed that sucker right in the middle of a circle of tents. Next day I watched the Norton bird come in from the coast,drop off the new crew and load up the new "passengers" They didn't even shut down engines,just closed the door and went back to Norton.
And if anybody's wondering why the AF dosen't air drop on Ft. Dix next door,there's a barn just off what used to be a DZ on Dix with a roof paid for by Uncle Sam. This happens when you put a truck through the roof.