Ahead lay a tense rescue; behind, a seemingly cursed flight by a troubled crew that had already lived - and in theory, died - in an earlier simulation eerily similar to this disaster.
In the simulated mission, Capt. Kevin Kent, the plane commander, had ignored a suggestion by his co-pilot, Capt. Jeffrey Love, to have the crew bail out seconds before they crashed. Although it was only a simulation, the crash had shaken several members of the crew.
During Hulk 46's final flight, the same decision had to be made. The co- pilot again called for a bailout as the plane fell toward the earth. According to the other two surviving members of the crew, Kent hesitated.
According to Kent, the last words of one crew member, Jeffrey Olson, were, ''Let's just get the hell out."
These details of the B-52's mission were pieced together from the Air Force's official investigation, which included lengthy testimony from the survivors. The Air Force deleted conclusions about the cause of the accident
from its report.
When the Pentagon announced the crash Feb. 3, it refused to say where the crash had occurred or give details of the rescue. Military spokesmen then said only that three crew members had survived and three were lost.
The spokesmen did emphasize then that the crash was accidental and not the result of enemy fire.
The B-52 that went down was 35 years old - older than any member of its crew. It had a history of small mechanical problems, but that was not unusual for the planes of the aging B-52 fleet.
Hulk 46 took off about noon on Feb. 2. The time of the flight indicated that the mission was a bombing run deep inside Iraq. The target and the plane's airbase are classified, although the report indicated that the base almost certainly was Diego Garcia, a remote island in the Indian Ocean, about 3,200 miles southeast of Baghdad.
The six-member crew was making its fourth combat flight. Besides Kent, Love and Olson, the plane's radar navigator, the crew comprised Lt. Jorge Arteaga, Lt. Eric Hedeen and Sgt. Steven Ellard.
The trip to the target and the 90-second bombing run, made above a protective cloud cover, went smoothly - no enemy antiaircraft fire or fighters. None of the survivors believes that Hulk 46 was hit.
As the plane made its way home, however, small problems began to mount.
A fuel gauge malfunctioned. An electrical generator failed. Then there were indications that the No. 5 jet engine - a B-52 has eight - was not operating properly.
But as Hulk 46 approached its base, both pilot and co-pilot felt calm about the plane's condition. "Gauge malfunction, the electrics, these are things you saw on normal flying missions," Kent said.
Then two engines flamed out. Love managed to get one engine restarted, and
Kent still felt the situation was manageable. Hulk 46 began its approach for landing. Then, Kent recalled, "Everything went black."
The entire electrical system had failed, and the plane and its crew were flying in total darkness, barreling in for a no-flaps, high-speed, night landing.
In the cockpit, Kent was tightly focused on flying the plane. Love was using a small flashlight to read an emergency checklist. Suddenly, and he still does not know why, Love shined his flashlight on the engine gauges. They were all rolling back toward zero. The engines were dying.
He and Kent pushed the throttles forward. The normally noisy engines seemed to respond, then tapered off.
"That's when I really noticed how . . . quiet it really was," said Kent.
Engines dead, Hulk 46 was still more than 15 miles out and probably only about 2,000 feet above the waves. B-52s glide like a "stone," according to one of the officers.
Kent's voice crackled over the radio at the base. "Hulk 46 is abandoning the aircraft at this time," he said. "No airspeed. We are losing everything."
In the base tower, controllers watched in horror as a mushroom cloud rose over the sea. Hulk 46 exploded on impact.
Hulk 46 had flown for about 4 minutes and 30 seconds without electrical power. But it was the last half-minute that brought the simulator crash flashing back for Love and Ellard.
Both testified that among the crew, the simulator crash raised questions about their commander. Ellard testified that the crew worried about Kent's willingness to risk their lives to save his airplane.
Kent said he discussed bailout procedures at length with his crew after the simulation, agreeing that any member could call for a bailout and that the rest of the crew should follow.
Maj. Gregory Bishop, a flying instructor who called Kent one of the finer pilots he ever taught, said Kent always kept in mind that his crew came first.
Still, at 3:42 a.m. on Feb. 3, the crew of Hulk 46 was reliving a bad
dream, this time for real.
"Pilot, we need to leave the airplane," Love said urgently.
"No, wait," Ellard and Love remember Kent saying.
"Let's just get the hell out," radar navigator Olson radioed from the plane's lower compartment.
"Pilot, we need to get out of the plane now," Love repeated.
Then he pulled his ejection handle. He remembered the moonlight coming in when the hatch popped off, shining on the engine gauges that had rolled back to zero. Then he blasted out of the plane.
Ellard, sitting behind Love and Kent, heard Kent order, "bail out," perhaps twice. Then Ellard was gone. Kent remembers wind rushing through the cockpit, but he was not certain the others had bailed out. Then he ejected.
None of the three survivors - Ellard, Love and Kent - remembered hearing anything from Olson and Arteaga, the two crew members in the lower deck.
Hedeen ejected but died, according to the report, due to "premature impact with the ocean." His parachute apparently did not open.
The three survivors all remember hitting the water almost immediately after their parachutes opened. The last altitude reading Kent saw before ejecting was 600 feet.
Olson and Arteaga would have ejected downward, if indeed they left the plane. Their bodies were never recovered.
Ellard saw the plane pass beneath him as he hung in the air.
All three men came down in the middle of the wreckage, a sign that they bailed out at extremely low altitude.
Love popped up only three feet from a piece of burning wreckage. He crawled into his raft, lit a flare and was about to toss it overboard when he realized he was floating in a puddle of aviation fuel. He held the flare aloft nervously until it burned out.
In an approaching rescue helicopter, Navy pilot Lt. Brent Dorman could smell the burning aviation fuel. He quickly found the three survivors.
Ellard was the first aboard the helicopter. Kent came second. Ellard remembered Kent saying to him, "I killed everybody. . . . I waited too long."
Kent did not refer to those comments in his testimony, and said he felt he acted promptly in ordering a bailout. He could not be reached for comment.
The plane's fuselage lies beneath 2,000 feet of water. According to the report, there are no plans to recover it.