OSI solves B-52 emergency mystery

  • Published
  • By Dr. Deborah Kidwell
  • OSI Command Historian

In the summer of 1988, an Air Force B-52 Stratofortress made a forced emergency landing at Andersen Air Force Base, Guam. The aircraft appeared to be damaged by what looked like small arms fire.

OSI agents at Detachment 4203 at Andersen were immediately called to the scene. The on-call duty agent reported that he received a call from the law enforcement desk informing him that a B-52 bomber had run off the runway after declaring an in-flight emergency. 

Agents found the bomber--their crime scene--with two blown tires, a jettisoned escape hatch, partially collapsed right landing gear, the suspected bullet hole, and what appeared to be nine additional bullet holes in both wings and the bomb bay doors. The damage grounded the aircraft for 42 days at a repair cost of $57,000. 

Crew members explained that they had been practicing touch-and-go landings when, during one departure, the aircraft’s master warning light illuminated and the crew watched their hydraulic pressure drop from 3,000 pounds per square inch (PSI) to zero.  As they were past the point of safely aborting their departure, the pilots had no choice but to power up and take off. 

Once airborne, the crew spent the next 90 minutes assessing their situation. They considered ejecting from the plane over the ocean, but the aircraft commander felt he could make a controlled crash landing, which he did with no injuries. Upon arriving at the scene, OSI agents called the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and local police to support the search for evidence and interview potential witnesses. Investigators did not find bullets, but they did collect a number of small copper-colored metal fragments. A Forensic Science consultant soon joined the investigative team. 

The scientist-agent determined that .223 caliber (5.56 mm) ammunition most likely made the bullet holes based on their diameter and the extent of the internal structural damage.  Agents canvassed local ammunition supply outlets to compile a list of more than 400 local purchases of .223 caliber ammunition on the island over the last several months.  They seized all weapons used by security police on the night of the shooting, however, none of them appeared to have been recently cleaned or fired. The security policeman posted closest to the aircraft’s path was more than a half mile away, and so the mystery continued.

A B-52 pilot, who was also a part-time mathematics instructor, volunteered to calculate the bullet impact angles. He was confident this data could establish a ground corridor that paralleled the aircraft’s flight path. However, he could not calculate how far the aircraft was from the end of the runway when it was hit. Two OSI agents working the case began a subjective field evaluation of possible shooter positions along the departure path and concluded the shooter most likely stationed himself just to the left and within three-fourths of a mile from the end of the runway, which placed the gunman in a relatively dense jungle area on the base. This area was known for local poaching activity, and three conservation officers had patrolled there on the night of the shooting.

A technical sergeant with the 43rd Field Maintenance Squadron’s hydraulics shop provided an important piece to the puzzle. He calculated the aircraft’s master warning light would have activated within 33 seconds after the hydraulics line was hit. This helped set the maximum distance the aircraft was from the end of the runway when the impact occurred. From that data, the pilot/mathematician determined that the gunman was approximately 400 yards from the runway and slightly to the left of the approach path when he fired at the aircraft, which agreed with the agents’ informal conclusions. It was later learned that these calculations were only about 120 feet off the mark.

With the gunman’s general ground position known, investigators began to concentrate on who had access to the area. Since no poachers were reported, investigators began to take a closer look at the conservation officers, even though they were not authorized to carry high-powered rifles on the job and it seemed unlikely that fellow law enforcement would fire a rifle at an Air Force aircraft. Agents also believed it would have been a conspiracy, because if one of the three officers shot at the plane, the others would know. 

Two of the conservation officers identified the third officer as the person who had shot at the aircraft. The pair told the FBI that the third officer was carrying his Mini-14 rifle that evening and had, on a dare, shot at the bomber. Afterwards, the trio agreed to remain silent about the incident. After the witnesses identified the shooting location, a search discovered three .223 caliber cartridge casings. These casings were later matched to the officer’s Mini-14 rifle.

More than three months after the investigation began, local FBI and OSI agents from Detachment 4203, arrested the conservation officer, who was later convicted of attempted murder. While this investigation included assistance from other agencies and a variety of skill sets to solve, OSI agents persisted to bring another successful investigation to a close.