Montana ranchers helped B-1 bomber crew after crash
BROADUS, Mont. (AP) — If there's one thing Brandon Packard doesn't want to repeat in his life, it's to be ejected at 200 mph from a crashing bomber.
Those were the words that Chris Gnerer, a rancher in the rolling hills of southeastern Montana, remembers hearing from one of the Ellsworth Air Force crew members he helped rescue, only hours after their B-1B bomber began to disintegrate in midair, the Rapid City Journal reported.
Gnerer, a lean 33-year-old, was driving a dirt bike on the northern side of his 2,000-acre ranch that morning. It was clear day; warm and getting warmer.
He was searching for stray cattle around 9 a.m. when an orange flame caught his eye. Gnerer turned to see an object explode in midair about seven miles away.
Gnerer was awe-struck as he watched the object split into two flaming pieces. One exploded in a mushroom cloud on a neighboring ranch. The other quickly joined it, producing a matching cloud.
Panicking, Gnerer called his wife. Krista Gnerer, a part-time nurse, was working in a town about 30 miles away that day.
Gnerer told her he had seen something — a comet, a piece of the sun, just something — fall from the sky. He thought the world might be ending.
Gnerer told his wife he would call her back and hung up.
After the initial shock subsided, he realized the crashing object was probably a plane. Perhaps one of the military's B-1B Lancers that train over the area regularly.
He called his neighbors — spread at 10- and 15-mile intervals from his own property — to warn them of a potential fire. At this time of year in the Montana plains, wildfires can spark easily and spread rapidly across the dry grass and sage brush.
Determined to see the crash for himself, Gnerer hit the throttle and aimed his bike toward the smoke. He lost track of time. His adrenaline was pumping.
Gnerer wasn't the first on scene. T.J. Cunningham, the owner of the ranch where the plane crashed, was already putting out a fire spreading from the wreckage.
There was little left of the plane — only a deep depression in the ground, two smoldering engines, what Gnerer thought was a chunk of the tail, and thousands of pieces of debris.
Gnerer was surveying the wreckage when volunteer firefighters and a police officer arrived. The officer yelled at him: "Get the hell out of there right now."
Gnerer approached the officer and asked if anyone had escaped from the plane. The officer told him that they believed the four crew members had ejected before the crash and parachuted somewhere nearby. Their location was unknown.
Gnerer offered to help find the crew and raced north on his bike. He weaved between twisted pieces of metal and startled cattle.
After three miles of riding he found cockpit seats and what looked like a hatch. Gnerer traced a quarter-mile radius around the seats; squinting, searching.
He saw no one.
He came across Cunningham and his wife in a pickup and a group of emergency services workers in another.
The group was making plans to search in different directions when a sheriff's deputy called out. Standing on a small hill, peering into the distance, he said he thought he could see a fallen parachute.
Gnerer, best able to handle the rugged terrain on his bike, headed forth again. Soon he found the first of the fallen: Brandon Packard, a weapons system instructor.
Packard looked bruised, bloody, and overjoyed to see Gnerer. He also seemed shaken.
"I got a baby girl due in October," he said upon seeing Gnerer.
"That's good," Gnerer replied, a little surprised. "That's good."
They exchanged names. Gnerer asked whether Packard knew where the rest of the crew had landed. Packard said he had become unconscious during ejection. When he awoke, he was falling in his parachute, but he believed his crew mates had fallen south of him.
Packard assured Gnerer that he would be OK by himself and Gnerer motored south.
He eventually came across the other three crew members; two lying, one standing, all three sharing the same battered appearance as Packard.
Chad Nishizuka, another weapons system instructor, appeared to have a dislocated arm. He smiled weakly and said little. Frank Biancardi, an instructor pilot, appeared to have a broken leg and was lying down. He moaned lightly.
Neishizuka and Curtis Michael, another instructor pilot, had propped up inflated life rafts to shade Biancardi from the sun. It was now about 90 degrees. The rafts were slowly deflating; punctured on the cactus-strewn field.
Another neighboring rancher, Steve Stoddard, arrived on horseback about the same time as Gnerer. The pair checked the condition of the crew members.
While they were talking, Stoddard and Gnerer asked the crew why their bomber had crashed. The three didn't seem to know. They knew something was wrong with the plane but weren't aware of its severity until moments before ejection.
After ensuring they were in a stable condition, Gnerer drove back to Packard's location and waited with him for emergency services to arrive.
A pickup arrived and the group headed back to the other three crew members. An ambulance soon followed and the injured men were loaded aboard. Gnerer, on his bike once more, helped lead the ambulance out of the ranch, charting a path that avoided bumps and crevices.
The crew was transferred to Rapid City Regional Hospital and Spearfish Regional Medical Center. The men were roughed up, but none were diagnosed with life-threatening injuries.
Two days later, seated on a micro suede couch in his home, his wife Krista next to him, Gnerer still reeled from Monday's crash and subsequent rescue. For a life-long rancher in one of the most desolate parts of rural America, it was a surreal experience, almost dream-like.
Gnerer still remembers his conversations with Packard, as the pair waited for emergency responders to arrive.
"I was telling him a lot of guys around here don't like 'em, don't appreciate those bombers flying, but I do," Gnerer said. "I get a rush. It's sweet, you know. And we don't get a lot of action around here, as you can imagine."
"And he said, 'It's a rush for us, too,' but he said, 'There's one thing I don't ever again want to do in my life — and that's eject."