A Boeing C-17 cargo plane crashed and burned Wednesday evening on Elmendorf Air Force Base during practice for an upcoming air show, killing the four crew members aboard, according to the Air Force.
Three of the crew were members of the Alaska Air National Guard and the other was active-duty Air Force from Elmendorf, the Air Force reported this morning. Their names have not yet been released.
The military is "working through the family notification process," Col. Jack McMullen, commander of Elmendorf's 3rd Wing, said at a news briefing early this morning outside Elmendorf's Boniface gate.
"Our deepest sympathy and sincerest condolences go out to the family and friends of those airmen killed in this crash," he said in a written statement overnight. "Yesterday, we lost four members of our Arctic Warrior family, and it's a loss felt across our entire joint installation."
At this morning's briefing, McMullen offered few new details about what happened other than to say the crash occurred about a minute after takeoff as the crew practiced for the hugely popular Arctic Thunder air show, which is planned for this weekend. A decision on whether to cancel the show hasn't been made.
"It happened very quickly after takeoff is what I do know," McMullen said. The C-17 had flown earlier Wednesday with a different crew, he said.
The C-17 is commonly featured in air shows, particularly highlighting the aircraft's ability to take off and land in short distances.
The huge, four-engine jet, known as the most advanced cargo aircraft in the world, crashed in what witnesses described as a huge ball of flame.
Emergency crews worked all night to secure the crash site and preserve the evidence for the Air Force investigation, McMullen said. Members of a safety team that will do the investigation should arrive on base within 24 hours, he said.
Brig. Gen. Chuck Foster, commander of the Air National Guard's 176th Wing, said a Guard squadron and active-duty squadron jointly operate C-17s. Officials said the investigation will determine who was flying the jet.
"One of our deep priorities right now, not only caring for the families of those we lost, but also those squadron mates," Foster said. "Of course, we tell them what we know when we know it and help them work through the grieving process."
The military offers help from counselors and chaplains to families and squadrons, which also take care of their own, Foster said.
"The squadrons themselves kind of surround each other and they care for one another," he said.
"Absolutely. The squadrons, the wing, the base is a huge family. So we're going to lean on each other to work ourselves through that," McMullen said.
Air Force Lt. Gen. Dana Atkins, the highest-ranking military official in Alaska, told reporters Wednesday night that the crew was practicing for the Elmendorf air show planned for this weekend when it crashed at 6:14 p.m.
Initial reports indicated the plane had gone down in a wooded area about two miles northeast of the runway.
A plume of black smoke rising from the base was visible from across the city.
Anchorage municipal firefighters at downtown Station 1 say they were called for an agency assist to a report of a plane crash but then were called off moments later as they got out on the street.
Roger Herrera, 35, said he had been driving on Turpin Street south of Elmendorf when he saw a ball of fire erupt on base.
"It was huge," he said. "My wife thought it was a nuclear bomb."
He reached for his camera, but by the time he had it the flames had given way to massive pillar of black smoke billowing into the sky, he said.
Military acts have been gathering on base this week to prepare for the air show. Atkins and McMullen both said a decision would be made soon on whether the show would go on.
The Boeing C-17 is a large military transport aircraft. It can "carry large equipment, supplies and troops directly to small airfields in harsh terrain anywhere in the world day or night," according to a description on Boeing's Web site of the C-17 Globemaster III. "The massive, sturdy, long-haul aircraft tackles distance, destination and heavy, oversized payloads in unpredictable conditions."
The C-17 holds more than 20 world-class airlift records, including one in which one of the aircraft took off and landed in less than 1,400 feet carrying a payload of 44,000 pounds, according to TheAviationZone.com.
The worst crash at Elmendorf happened in September 1995 when an AWACS jet hit a flock of geese. Twenty-four airmen were killed when the radar plane went down. It was the first ever crash for an AWACS jet.
Some 218 C-17s are in service around the world, including 199 used by the U.S. Air Force and National Guard, according to Boeing.
Foster said he knew of no fatal C-17 crashes.
One crash-landed on its belly in Afghanistan in January 2009, but it was due to pilot error, according to a military investigation. The crew failed to lower the landing gear and turned off an alert system, according to the Air Force Times. The repair bill for the $200 million plane was $19 million, the story said.
Wednesday evening's crash is the second this summer near downtown Anchorage. A light plane went down in June after taking off from Merrill Field in June, killing one young child and injuring four other people.
By LISA DEMER and JAMES HALPIN
Anchorage Daily News