AWACS Plane Crashes on Takeoff; All 24 Presumed Dead
ELMENDORF AIR FORCE BASE, Alaska (AP) _ A huge AWACS battlefield-radar plane carrying 24 military personnel crashed and burned on takeoff Friday, killing everyone aboard.
The bodies of 22 crew members were found, and searchers were looking for the remains of the other two men Friday evening, said Maj. Jereon Brown, an Air Force spokesman at the base.
It was the first crash of an Airborne Warning and Control System plane since the Air Force began using them in 1977.
A source speaking on condition of anonymity said the crash may have been caused by about a dozen Canada geese found dead at the departure end of the runway. The Air Force would not speculate on a cause, and said a board of officers would investigate.
The plane exploded on impact about two miles from the end of the runway, deep in the woods and inaccessible to fire engines. Rescuers had to bulldoze a path to the site, which was marked by a plume of smoke that could be seen 30 miles away.
``Just as he got wheels up, the front left engine started popping and I could see fire shooting out the end,″ Clay Wallace, an Army National Guard captain who was at Elmendorf Air Force Base, told radio station KENI.
``I said, `Where the hell did he go?′ and all of a sudden down he went in a huge fireball.″
The plane, loaded to capacity with 125,000 pounds of fuel, mowed down 200 birch trees as it hit the ground, clearing a black scar 300 yards long and 150 yards wide in the forest.
From a helicopter flying 300 feet overhead, the AWACS looked like metal confetti on the forest floor. The only recognizable pieces were a 6-foot section of fuselage with yellow insulation still attached and the scorched shell of one engine.
The smell of burning forest lingered in the air several hours after the crash.
About two dozen searchers were picking through rubble for remains of the two missing crew members. The Air Force was notifying families of the dead, Brown said at news conference at the base, 10 miles north of Anchorage.
The four-engine E-3B AWACS plane, a $180 million modified Boeing 707 laden with sophisticated radar and other electronic surveillance gear, had set out just after daybreak on a training mission with 22 Americans and two Canadians, the Air Force said.
President Clinton, visiting San Diego, issued a statement expressing his condolences.
``Their loss reminds us how much we owe those who serve our nations’ armed forces,″ Clinton said. ``Our hearts and prayers go out to the families, friends and loved ones of those who were killed both in the United States and in Canada.″
A string of Air Force crashes had already resulted in 29 deaths this year. Gen. Ronald Fogleman, Air Force chief of staff, assembled a panel of outside experts earlier this year to study the service’s safety record.
``To my knowledge there have been no safety problems with the (AWACS) fleet, and if there had been we would have grounded the planes and repaired them,″ said Michael R. Gannon, an Air Force spokesman in Washington.
The plane has a rotating radar dome that is used to detect, identify and track aircraft and monitor the field of battle. It is able to screen out ground clutter that confuses other radar systems.
In the Persian Gulf War, AWACS planes played a key role in coordinating the allied air offensive. AWACS flew more than 400 missions.
An AWACS plane also figured in the April 1994 downing by U.S. fighter planes of two U.S. Army helicopters in northern Iraq. Twenty-six people aboard the helicopters were killed.
Last month, the Air Force grounded a number of airmen involved in the tragedy, including three members of the AWACS crew, which was accused of failing to tell the fighter pilots that the helicopters were American.
AWACS planes can fly at high speed for more than 11 hours without refueling. The Air Force says it has 34 of the planes in service, although only 29 are flown regularly.