No aircraft in recent history has been maligned as much as the B-1 bomber, one of which crashed yesterday returning from a run over Afghanistan.

The supersonic aircraft went into the ocean about 30 miles north of Diego Garcia, its island base, after reportedly suffering "multiple malfunctions" that made it impossible to handle.

About 15 minutes after declaring an emergency, and while trying to maneuver the bomber back to the island, the crew members realized they had no choice but to bail out, said the pilot, Capt. William Steele.

And so they did, from about 15,000 feet, as their explosive ejection seats worked as designed.

Steele said that the four men landed well apart and at first he could see only one other crew member.

But the men had radios and tracking devices, and eventually they were hauled aboard a boat launched by the USS Russell, a destroyer that had been sent to the crash area, Pentagon officials said.

The B-1, which costs about $200 million each, was considered an albatross by the Air Force the day it rolled off the Palmdale, Calif., production line, labeled a flying Edsel of the U.S. arsenal and later derided as a relic of the Cold War. It has been in use since 1985.

For critics of defense spending, the swing-wing B-1 became a symbol of a military-industrial complex gone berserk, a huge $28 billion boondoggle bolstered by a vast political lobbying machine that was enamored of the 60,000 jobs it created in Southern California and elsewhere.

But the B-1 has become the workhorse of the air campaign in Afghanistan, credited with knocking out key Taliban and al-Qaida forces with devastating precision and helping to hasten U.S. military operations in the Central Asian country.

"It's finally getting the opportunity to prove its capabilities, which we knew it had when we built it," said Charles "Bill" Bright, who was the flight test manager for the B-1. Bright spent 15 years on the program before retiring in 1992.

"It's been a pleasure to see them use it."

Plans to reduce fleet

Just three months before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the Pentagon proposed grounding 33 B-1s and applying the savings to improvements on the remaining fleet of 60 B-1s.

Its performance in Afghanistan, which included last week's bombing of an al-Qaida leadership compound near Kandahar, has emboldened supporters who are fighting a Pentagon plan to slash the B-1 fleet.

Testifying before a House committee in August, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld derided the B-1 as "a 20-year-old system."

"It's not stealthy. It's designed for the Cold War. It has been headed toward expensive obsolescence," he said.

Despite the B-1's role in Afghanistan, Rumsfeld has not backed off the proposal, which has emerged as the first major test of the Bush administration's ability to make changes to the military.

While military analysts say the B-1 appears to be the "star player in Afghanistan," the Pentagon has been reluctant to talk about it. Eight B-1s based on Diego Garcia are flying about four sorties a day dropping the majority of the tonnage in Afghanistan, military sources say.

But the Pentagon refuses to provide details of the B-1's role.