By James Halpin and Lisa Demer
ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) — A C-17 cargo plane with four people on board crashed and burned on Elmendorf Air Force Base Wednesday evening, according to the Air Force.
Elmendorf officials have confirmed the aircraft, which is known as the most advanced cargo aircraft in the world, was on a "local training mission" when it crashed at 6:14 p.m. The conditions of the crew, assigned to Elmendorf's 3rd Wing, are unknown, the Air Force said.
Initial reports indicated the plane had crashed into a wooded area about two miles north and east of the runway. The plane had apparently been headed east off Runway 5 and was banking left, to the north, when it went down.
"I was watching it do maneuvers, thinking it was practicing for the Air Show this weekend," wrote one witness on base who asked to remain anonymous. He wrote, he then saw it just drop out of the sky followed by a huge fireball. RIP fellow brothers."
A black plume of smoke was visible rising from the base starting about 6:45 p.m.
Firefighters at the downtown Station 1 say they saw a ball of flames and a plume of black smoke rise from base. They were called for an agency assist to a report of a plane crash but then were called off the summons moments later as they got out on the street, according to firefighters.
Roger Herrera, 35, said he had been driving on Turpin Street south of Elmendorf when he saw a ball of fire erupt on base.
"It was huge," he said. "My wife thought it was a nuclear bomb."
He reached for his camera, but by the time he had it the flames had given way to massive pillar of black smoke billowing into the sky, he said.
The crash comes on the cusp of Elmendorf's immensely popular Arctic Thunder air show and open house, which is set for this weekend.
Military acts have been gathering on base this week to prepare, but it wasn't clear if the C-17 was part of the show. It also wasn't immediately clear whether the air show will go on as scheduled. The announced headline acts are the U.S. Navy Blue Angels and the Canadian Snowbirds. In the past, the air show has drawn the largest two-day crowds in Alaska.
The C-17 is commonly featured in air shows, particularly the aircraft's ability to take off and land in short distances.
The Boeing C-17 is a large military transport aircraft. It's powered by four engines and can "carry large equipment, supplies and troops directly to small airfields in harsh terrain anywhere in the world day or night," according to a description on Boeing's website of the C-17 Globemaster III. "The massive, sturdy, long-haul aircraft tackles distance, destination and heavy, oversized payloads in unpredictable conditions."
The C-17 holds more than 20 world-class airlift records, including one in which a C-17 took off and landed in less than 1,400 feet carrying a payload of 44,000 pounds, according to TheAviationZone.com.