A huge AWACS battlefield-radar plane carrying U.S. and Canadian military personnel crashed and burned on takeoff Friday, killing at least 22 people. Two others were missing and presumed dead.
It was the first crash of an Airborne Warning and Control System plane since the Air Force began using them in 1977.
The plane exploded on impact deep in the woods, 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.
The Air Force was notifying families of the dead late Friday afternoon, Maj. Jereon Brown said at news conference at the base, 10 miles north of Anchorage.
“Just as he got wheels up, the front left engine started popping and I could see fire shooting out the end,” Clay Wallace, an Air 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 four-engine E-3 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.
Wallace said he saw the far left engine catch fire as the plane went down the runway. The plane tried to take off but couldn’t get enough power and crashed about 500 feet from the end of the runway, he said.
The plane was laden with 135,000 pounds of fuel, flight maintenance workers said.
The Air Force said a board of officers would investigate the cause of the crash. 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 were killed.