When the doors had closed, his body had been compressed to little more than 2 inches in width, about the thickness of the bomb bay door gaskets, plus maybe an extra inch due to the doors cracking and flexing a bit. Those gaskets were the only thing preventing him from being severed in two, and killing him.
‘First I have to confess that I did not witness the event occur, but I did see the aftermath.’ He explains on Quora, Harrell was an IFC. He worked on the flight line, maintaining the fleet of B-1B Lancers. ‘Well, mostly I rode around the flight line in the back of our truck, Tiger 10, while we waited for a plane to break, or to do scheduled maintenance, troubleshooting, etc. There are many different shops (maintenance groups) that work on the flight line, and we have our own trucks with designated call signs, to facilitate radio communications, and also for the excuse of having cool hats to wear instead of the camo tops that were standard issue.
‘For anyone who is not remotely familiar with bombers, and the B-1B in particular, the payload delivery method (how bombs are dropped) is via sets of elongated doors on the underside of the jet. These doors are very large, thick, and extremely heavy. I do not know the closing force of the doors, as I was not a weapons guy, but it must have been tremendous. The sound of the doors closing at full force was reminiscent of the sound of Mercedes G Wagon doors being slammed, if those vehicles weighed about 100,000 pounds. The doors are roughly the dimensions of large dining room tables meant to seat 12 or more. The doors are mounted in pairs, with a very thick and hard rubber gasket on each door, which provides an extremely tight seal when the doors are closed. These seals are far, far harder and stiffer than the weather stripping inside refrigerators, car doors, etc. When closed, the doors have a roughly 2-inch space between them, and that space is filed with the gaskets along the edge of each door, that are tightly pressed together to prevent air from leaking in and out of the bomb bay when the plane is flying.’
‘Now that you are slightly more familiar with the B-1B, the story involves a weapons crew—an airman and his supervisor, a sergeant. They were performing some checks and readiness tests on the weapons systems, wherein the young airman was atop a ladder underneath the plane, standing inside the bomb bay doors, which were open, so both doors were hanging down vertically. While he was doing whatever a weapons guy does, his supervisor was inside the plane, flipping switches, turning dials and hitting icons on the screen at the OSO seat. OSO is Offensive Systems Operator. There are two pilots and two navigators on board the B-1B. The DSO would be for Defensive Systems, though we called them “OH-so and DOH-so”.
‘The way the ladder was situated, it was not extended such that it reached into the bomb bay, because during the tests, the airman needed to climb down periodically while the supervisor cycled the doors. Only the top half of the airman’s body was ever inside the bomb bay during the test. They communicated by shouting to each other, so the airman always knew when he needed to clear the area so the doors could be closed. The supervisor was coming up and down the ladder that leads to the crew area, each time yelling to the airman to step down if the doors needed to be closed.
‘Whenever any maintenance or testing is done on the aircraft, the technicians absolutely must have technical orders with them and opened to the pages that describe how to perform the job. You could have done the same job 100 times, but you still better have the technical orders (TO) in hand, turned to the page pertaining to the job you’re handling. If QA (who rode around the flight line daily) were to catch you, the penalty would be pretty severe. From what we were told, the supervisor was busy working, and since he had done the job countless times over the years, the TO was present on the jet, opened to the pages for the task he was carrying out, but naturally he wasn’t using it.
‘In the midst of running up and down the crew ladder to talk to the airman and working the controls inside, at some point he must have gotten ahead of himself. He was inside the jet and failed to alert the airman who was on the ladder that he needed to close the doors. He closed them, and they slammed shut with the force of a miniature wrecking ball. He must have heard the noise of the ladder falling over to the concrete over the loud sound of the generators that were no doubt running.
‘Immediately fearing the worst, he dashed down the crew ladder and to his horror, the ladder was lying on the ground, and he saw, about 8 feet in the air, two camoflauged pant legs hanging, with the bomb bay doors tightly shut around the upper body half that was hidden from view. In a panic, he jumped back up the crew ladder and opened the doors, and the airman’s limp and broken body fell back to Earth, hitting concrete as well as the aluminum ladder.
‘We were told the next morning about this incident, given a safety briefing/warning about the utter importance of following technical orders, communication, and situational awareness, and then our supervisor drove the truck to the scene of the accident. The concrete was bloodstained. The plane was still there, and the bomb bay doors were closed, but they had cracked slightly, under the strain of trying to close around what had once been an intact spinal column. The airman was in critical condition—somehow he live, but his back had been broken, along with several ribs, head injuries from the fall, and his organs had been beat up pretty badly. It was said that when the doors had closed, his body had been compressed to little more than 2 inches in width, about the thickness of the bomb bay door gaskets, plus maybe an extra inch due to the doors cracking and flexing a bit. Those gaskets were the only thing preventing him from being severed in two, and killing him.’
‘From what we were told, the airman spent several months in recovery before he would eventually be medically discharged. The supervisor had obviously been severely punished, including an LOR (Letter of Reprimand) which would go into his file permanently, and he may have lost some rank, but I’m not totally clear on that. Not many exciting or noteworthy things happen on the flight line aside from maybe a tool being lost—a huge deal when you have several hundred million dollar aircraft that like to inhale things through their engines, or worse, the occasional plane crash. A few of us had suffered minor injuries here and there, while working on the B-1, but nothing ever came close to being crushed between the bomb bay doors. I can’t imagine the agony that airman must have experienced after he gained consciousness, but I’m sure he was grateful that his injuries were not fatal.’
Photo credit: Airman 1st Class Austin Mayfield / U.S. Air Force