An Air Force board of inquiry Saturday began searching for the cause of a crash on Friday that left one of the world’s most advanced surveillance planes scattered like confetti in an Alaskan forest. Officials said they were considering the possibility that geese had been sucked into one of the plane’s four engines.
All 24 crew members - 22 Americans and 2 Canadians - were killed when the $180-million, E-3B Advanced Warning and Control System, or AWACS, jet burst into a fireball as it plowed into a forest moments after takeoff at Elmendorf Air Force Base, just north of Anchorage.
An Air Force spokesman at Elmendorf, Senior Master Sgt. Clem Mewmaw, said that investigators “will look at all aspects, all issues of what happened,” and that “one of the issues is the issue of geese.”
The remains of a dozen geese were found at the end of the runway after the crash, The Associated Press said Saturday, raising the possibility that part of the flock had been pulled into the engine, producing the flames and stalling sounds reported by witnesses.
“Anything that has to do with the geese is speculation at this point,” Mewmaw said, pointing out that it would be several weeks before the investigation was completed.
Witnesses said that as the plane, a modified Boeing 707, roared down the runway, one of its four engines caught fire. And although it managed to get off the ground, it failed to gain much altitude and plunged into a grove of trees two miles away.
“Just as he got wheels up, the front left engine started popping and I could see fire shooting out the end,” said Clay Wallace, an Army National Guard captain who was at the base. “I said, ‘Where the hell did he go?’ and all of a sudden down he went in a huge fireball.”
Sergeant Mewmaw said the last of the 24 bodies had been recovered at 7:40 p.m. Friday.