Crew reported fire on plane heavily laden with fuel just before crash near Fairbanks

The crew of a doomed cargo plane reported an in-flight fire and requested a return to the Fairbanks airport before the plane crashed into the Tanana River on Tuesday, an official from the National Transportation Safety Board said.

Two people aboard the Douglas DC-4 died.

The plane took off from Fairbanks International Airport around 9:55 a.m. carrying about 3,200 gallons of cargo fuel and another 1,200 gallons for a 300-mile flight to the Northwest Alaska village of Kobuk, said Clint Johnson, chief of the NTSB’s Alaska office.

Air traffic control recordings showed the crew reported a fire and had requested to return to Fairbanks for an emergency landing before all communications were lost, Johnson said. The plane crashed about 7 miles southwest of the airport, then “slid into a steep hill on the bank of the river where it caught fire,” troopers said.

Mike Emers, owner of Rosie Creek Farm southwest of Fairbanks, reported hearing an explosion and saw one of the plane’s four engines on fire just before it crashed. He said a large column of dark smoke rose from the crash site as more explosions were heard.

Surveillance video taken on Emers’ farm at about 10 a.m. Tuesday, and broadcast on Alaska’s News Source, captures the moments before the crash. In the video, an explosion can be seen before the plane plummets toward the ground.

It was not immediately clear what caused the fire or crash, but three NTSB investigators were at the scene Tuesday, Johnson said.


The plane was operated by Alaska Air Fuel, a Wasilla-based fuel hauling company.

NTSB investigators were working with Alaska Air Fuel’s insurance company Wednesday to evaluate how the wreckage would be recovered, Johnson said. Some of the debris was scattered over the river’s thin ice, he said. In an update Wednesday morning, troopers described conditions at the crash site as difficult and said thin ice and open water were hindering recovery efforts.

Troopers had not released the names of the people onboard the plane Wednesday morning. Recovered remains were sent to the State Medical Examiner Office for positive identification, troopers said.

Douglas DC-4 planes are increasingly rare and were originally used by the military during World War II. The military version is known as the C-54 Skymaster.

Troopers said they responded to the scene along with University of Alaska Police, Fairbanks Airport Police and Fire, the Fairbanks Police Department, the Esther and Chena Goldstream volunteer fire departments and the Rescue Coordination Center.

Troopers on Wednesday asked the public to avoid the area.

Daily News reporter Michelle Theriault Boots contributed to this story.

Tess Williams

Tess Williams is a reporter focusing on breaking news and public safety. Before joining the ADN in 2019, she was a reporter for the Grand Forks Herald in North Dakota. Contact her at twilliams@adn.com.