A refueling tanker jet bound for Hawaii crashed in a ball of flame Tuesday as it took off from Dyess Air Force Base, killing all 19 people aboard, officials said.
Officials at K. I. Sawyer Air Force Base near Marquette, Mich., where the flight originated, said the plane’s passengers included spouses of military members or retired military members.
The crew of the KC-135 tanker “never got it off the ground,” said Vernon Wright, 19, who saw the crash. “The first thing I saw was just the mushroom of the smoke.”
“I heard the plane as it was coming down,” said Skeet Jackson of Abilene. “Engines were backfiring and missing. It curved off to the left and crashed, and then I saw the ball of smoke and fire go up.”
Initial reports forwarded to Air Force commanders at the Pentagon suggested the pilot of the plane experienced some kind of problem during his take-off roll, according to officials who spoke on condition they not be identified.
“It was toward the end of the roll and he apparently had no choice but to press on,” said one source.
The plane was on a training mission from Dyess to Hickam Air Force Base, Hawaii, a spokeswoman said.
The flight manifest showed that 17 of those on board were from Sawyer Air Force Base and the other two boarded at Dyess, Master Sgt. Al Dostal at Dyess said.
Sources in Washington said the plane was almost fully loaded with jet fuel, carrying 155,000 pounds, including its own fuel and fuel to be transferred to some F-16 fighter jets as they crossed the Pacific Ocean.
Air Force officials said the tanker crashed near the south end of the base runway, near U.S. 277 and about 6 miles southwest of Abilene.
The maintenance record for the plane, powered by four Pratt & Whitney jet engines, was not yet available, Peck said.
It was the second crash at Dyess in less than three months. A B-1B bomber crashed there Nov. 8.