An aerial tanker jet reportedly flown by a Fairchild Air Force Base crew crashed Friday in the rugged mountains of Kyrgyzstan, the Central Asian nation where the U.S. operates an air base key to the war in Afghanistan.
Military officials would not disclose where the KC-135 Stratotanker or its crew was from, but Reuters News Service reported that congressional sources were being advised that the tanker was from McConnell Air Force Base in Kansas and the three-member crew was from Fairchild on Spokane County’s West Plains.
Fairchild supplies most of the aircraft and many of the maintenance and flight crews operating from the Manas airfield, located outside the former Soviet bloc nation’s capital of Bishkek. The base serves as a hub for aerial refueling operations over nearby war zones and as a staging point for the military’s northern supply route into Afghanistan.
In Spokane, Master Sgt. Eugene Taylor at Fairchild acknowledged being aware of news accounts identifying the missing airmen as being from Fairchild, but he said he could not confirm the reports.
“Until the Air Force notifies the next of kin, the Air Force will not confirm where the crew was from or the aircraft,” Taylor said. “It’s just the process the Air Force has enacted to protect the personnel and their families.”
Because of the nature of the crash, the official notification could take some time, Taylor explained.
“Right now the crew is officially listed as missing because we don’t have any bodies. The airplane blew up in flight,” he said. “Because they are listed as missing, that might hold up the notification process.”
Air Force personnel at the Kyrgyzstan base, called the Transit Center at Manas, said it had no immediate information on the cause of the crash, but a resident of the agricultural and sheep-grazing area said the plane appeared to explode in flight.
“I was working with my father in the field and I heard an explosion. When I looked up at the sky, I saw the fire. When it was falling, the plane split into three pieces,” Sherikbek Turusbekov said.
The crash site is near Chaldovar, a village about 100 miles west of the base. Pieces of the plane, including its tail, lay in a grassy field bordered by mountains; the air was infused with the heavy stench of petrol.
The base, which is adjacent to the Manas International Airport, was established in late 2001 to support the international military campaign in Afghanistan. It functions as an interim point for troops going into or out of Afghanistan and as a home for the tanker planes that refuel warplanes in flight.
The KC-135, a model first put into service in the 1950s, is among the oldest planes in the Air Force fleet and is scheduled to be replaced by the KC 46, which is being built by Boeing beginning in 2017. Fairchild is among the finalists for the first squadron of new-generation tankers.
The Kyrgyzstan base has been the subject of a contentious dispute between the United States and its host nation.
In 2009, the U.S. reached an agreement with the Kyrgyz government to use it for $60 million a year. But the lease runs out in June 2014, and the U.S. wants to keep it longer to aid in the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan. Kyrgyzstan is reluctant to extend the lease.