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Page born: July 7th 2002


PHOTO: Ellis Neel/Daily News
Quick on his feet -- Brig. Gen. Marc "Buck" Rogers, commander, 49th Fighter Wing, Holloman Air Force Base, fields a reporter's question during a press conference Thursday at Holloman Air Force Base while explaining the accident in which an F-117A Nighthawk stealth pilot inadvertently dropped three BDU-33s during a routine training sortie Tuesday over Texas and New Mexico. Brig. Gen. Rogers is seen holding one of the mishap bombs.

F-117A drops three practice bombs offrange

[Hole in bathroom ceiling of Monahans, TX home.  (KWES)] July 17, 2002
-- The Air Force has grounded a fighter pilot who accidentally dropped three BDU-33 inert steel dummy bombs, including one that fell on a house. No one was injured

The pilot did not know his F-117A stealth fighter was carrying the 25-pound practice bombs as he targeted trash bins and other structures during a training exercise Tuesday, the pilot's wing commander said. He is suspended pending an investigation.

"This is not the way we do business, and we're very disappointed it happened," Brig. Gen. Marc Rogers, 49th Fighter Wing commander at Holloman Air Force Base said. The F-117A Nighthawk stealth pilot who dropped the dummy bomb was the first one aware something was amiss and missing from his jet, said Rogers. "He took some noble actions. He immediately took the film (videotape), ran to his commander and said I think something came off my airplane," Rogers said.

[Map of accidental bomb drops.  (KOB-TV)] The pilot, whose name was not released, dropped the bombs on a home in Monahans, Texas, and near roads in Pecos, Texas, and Maljimar, New Mexico. No one was injured.

The BDU-33 is a "training ordnance device used in place of the more costly" 500-pound MK-82 and the 2,000-pound MK-84 general purpose, non-guided bombs, Airman Whipple said. The tear-drop-shaped blue BDU-33 is 22.9 inches long, is four inches in diameter, has a stabilizing fin and is equipped with an explosive charge to emit smoke to help spotters detect just where the device impacted the ground in relation to its intended target. The BDU-33 "costs $13.52 per assembled unit," she said. The dummy bombs "simulate the trajectory of the larger-scale bombs. "It kind of shoots out a little puff of smoke ... so spotters can evaluate the accuracy" of the bombing mission.

"We are trying to determine what went awry," said Air Force Maj. Greg McClure, a 35-year-old civil engineer who was at site of the incident. He is a member of Holloman AFB's Air Combat Command. "The investigation, hopefully, will tell us exactly what happened," McClure said. "The investigation ... is going to be extremely thorough." The aircraft's pilot "made it back safely, and nobody on the ground was injured, either," McClure said. "That is really fortunate." Tuesday's "unintended release" of the dummy bombs was "the only time this has happened in the history -- about 20 years -- of the stealth aircraft," McClure said.

He was on a training flight called a "camera attack" that is meant to simulate precision bombing using actual ground targets. Rogers said training flights are routinely flown around the Southwest using cameras to simulate bombs aimed at targets, sometimes in populated areas. "The mission was a camera mission where they fly over a community and they use cameras ... kind of a video," said Airman Martha Whipple of Holloman Air Force where the F-117A is based. "The (Gloria Aker) house definitely was not a target," she said. "I'm not exactly sure what happened."

A target is chosen -- it might be a house or vehicle, or it might be a big city building to simulate an attack such as was done during Desert Storm. The camera will simulate going through the run, and the videotape will later be viewed to determine if the target was "hit." "This (the Nighthawk) is the most precise platform in the (Department of Defense) territory. That is why this aircraft can be used to attack targets in urban areas," Rogers said. "The only time we have munitions dropped from the aircraft on a training mission is when we go to a training range. As this pilot went through the route -- which I might say he executed perfectly -- he didn't know (bombs) were aboard. The target in Monahans was not the house, he said, but a garbage "dumpster" several blocks away.

[File photo of BDU-33 practice bombs being checked by a maintainer.  (HAFB Sunburst)] Rogers said a routine preflight check, performed by pilots and maintenance personnel, includes an inspection of the bomb bay. But other factors, including a mechanical failure in the plane, may have caused the accident, he said.

One of the practice bombs went through a home's roof , into a bathroom, and pierced the wall and closet of the adjacent bedroom. The practice bomb plowed through the house's concrete foundation and into about four feet of sandy soil. McClure said that the USAF "absolutely" will compensate the family and work with the family in repairing the damaged house to its prior condition "or better." Construction work would include repairing the roof and ceiling, the bathroom, a wall and the closet area of Sarah's bedroom. .

Monahans, a oilfield-ranching town of 6,821 people, is about 50 miles west of Midland, 200 miles east of Holloman AFB.

Essence of the last words which Rosa Armenta recalled telling her daughter just before the olive-drab (OD) military practice bomb shot like lightning into her house was "God bless you. Take care."

The bomb shot through a towering cottonwood tree and into the house about 2:50 p.m,Wednesday, July 17. "They were lucky, really lucky," Mrs. Armenta said on mid-afternoon Wednesday.

Her daughter, Gloria Aker, 35, and her daughter's children, Sarah Tarin, 17, and, Andrew Aker, 9, were safe but frightened.

"I am still in shock," Ms. Aker said a day after the crashing boom of the inert bomb disrupted her family's life. "I am very grateful that my kids are fine. They are still alive."

At moment of the crash, Ms. Aker said she had envisioned lightning striking the house.

"It was creepy," said her son, Andrew. A day later, "I just feel all right."

His sister, Sarah, said "Everyone thought it was a meteorite, but it turned out to be a 25-pound (dummy) bomb."

"We thought it was a meteorite at first," Monahans City Secretary Lorena Marquez said of the Monahans dummy bomb in referring to a meteorite that had fallen on Monahans in March 1998 and got national press coverage. "Just luck, I guess," as it turned out.

The aircraft's "practice ranges are in isolated areas many, many miles from any kind of populated areas," McClure said. The unintended Monahans release was outside the F-117A's Pecos practice area.

At the moment of the crash, Ms. Aker was in the living room of her three-bedroom, two-bath house and was talking on the telephone to her mother. Her daughter was there with her. Ms. Aker's son, Andrew, was in his bedroom to get a coloring book since the family was readying to leave home to visit Ms. Aker's sister in Odessa.

"It crashed through the roof and then went through the bathroom wall and into the floor breaking a water pipe," Dick Aker said.

"What they did, that was negligence," said Gloria Aker, who was home with her young son and 17-year-old daughter when the practice bomb hit. "They could have killed my kids."

Aker initially could not find her son in his bedroom. "There was smoke," Aker said. "I was screaming and he didn't answer me."

"I am glad they are all right now," 55-year-old Danny Armenta said of his daughter and his two grandchildren. "Material things can be replaced," he said. "Human lives can't."

His granddaughter, Sarah, said the crashing sound was "like a firecracker but much louder.

"And all of a sudden, this cloud of dust just came through the house," Sarah said. "The first thing that came to my mind was my little brother. I thought something had happened to him. And he came out of the room, and we ran out of the house and notified police and everything."

Dale George, 43, of Monahans just happened to be looking toward the cottonwood tree neighboring the Gloria Aker house when the F-117A dummy bomb struck the house.

"It sounded like a bottle-rocket," George said. "It hissed and it popped. I heard it, and I saw a smoke trail" between the cottonwood tree and the house.

A team arrived in Maljamar about 7 a.m. Wednesday and took less than an hour to dig out the second bomb. That bomb landed near a road just inside the village limits and drilled itself about 4 feet into the ground, said emergency medical technician Kay Mathews, who was at the site. They were very fortunate,'' Maljamar resident Sandy Hope told the Lovington (N.M.) Daily Leader for its Wednesday editions. It hit right off the side of the road. If it would have hit across the street, there was some housing back there.''

Holloman officials said the base immediately notified police and fire departments in the three communities after the fighter landed and the problem was discovered.

"I feel a little bit better" after the accident, "Ms. Aker said on Thursday. "I had a hard time sleeping last night, but I'm still frustrated about everything. I'm ready to go back (home). It's kind of an inconvenience not to be in your own house. You know what I mean?" While her house is undergoing repairs, Ms. Aker and her children are living with her parents, Danny and Rosa Armenta, of Monahans.

The third bomb was recovered near Pecos by the same team, Holloman officials said late Wednesday. Another team retrieved the Monahans bomb.

USAF Brig. Gen. Marc Rogers, who is commander of the 49th Fighter Wing at Holloman AFB, said that the Monahans "community support was superb" in wake of the mishap, Airman Whipple said. "There are great Americans out there and great support from the folks out there"

Ms. Aker said that Air Force officials have "offered to take us to their base (near Alamogordo, N.M.) and give us a little tour. That was very nice of them." To the offer, Ms. Aker said, "Not yet, because we have to get (affairs) altogether to see what day we decide to go (there)

This incident is expected to be labeled Class C (Less than $200,000 damage).

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