A C-17 cargo plane crashed and burned on Elmendorf Air Force Base Wednesday evening, 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.
"Our deepest sympathy and sincerest condolences go out to the family and friends of those Airmen killed in this crash," Col. John McMullen, commander of Elmendorf's 3rd Wing, 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."
A news briefing has been scheduled for 8 a.m.
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Air Force Lt. Gen. Dana Atkins, the highest ranking military official in Alaska, told reporters Wednesday night that the plane was practicing for the Elmendorf air show planned for this weekend went it crashed at 6:14 p.m. The huge, four-engine jet, which is known as the most advanced cargo aircraft in the world, crashed in what witnesses described as a huge ball of flame.
"It's not an ejection aircraft," Atkins said during the press conference, held outside the Boniface Parkway gate of Elmendorf. "I mean, it's not like a fighter where you can eject out of the aircraft. So, likely nobody escaped the aircraft prior to the crash."
Initial reports indicated the plane had gone down in a wooded area about two miles north and east of the runway.
A black plume of smoke was visible rising from the base from across the city.
Firefighters at the downtown Station 1 say they saw a ball of flames and black smoke rise from base. They were called for an agency assist to a report of a plane crash but then were called off the summons moments later as they got out on the street, according to firefighters.
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.
At the Boniface Parkway gate to the base, Karol Malone tried to get access to the base soon after the crash because of worries that her son, Maj. Aaron Malone, was aboard the airplane. She said he is a pilot on a C-17 who is planning to fly in Elmendorf's immensely popular Arctic Thunder air show and open house, which is set for this weekend.
Guards at the gate told her to contact public affairs, who didn't have any information for her.
"It's been an hour and a half and they haven't even contacted families," Malone said.
Military acts have been gathering on base this week to prepare for the air show. Atkins said a decision would be made "very soon" on whether the show would go on.
The announced headline acts at the air show are the U.S. Navy Blue Angels and the Canadian Snowbirds. In the past, the air show has drawn the largest two-day crowds in Alaska.
The C-17 is commonly featured in air shows, particularly the aircraft's ability to take off and land in short distances.
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. A search of a news database found no previous reports of 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.
Gov. Sean Parnell and Sen. Mark Begich issued statements late Wednesday expressing sadness over the crash and sending well-wishes to members of the military. "Alaskans are very connected to the military, and our thoughts and prayers are with Alaska's Air Force family," Parnell said.