Investigators today began searching through the wreckage of two large McChord Air Force Base cargo planes that collided over north-central Montana last night, looking for clues to the crash that apparently killed all 13 aboard.
The C-141s were involved in a refueling training exercise at between 24,000 and 27,000 feet when they collided at 8:20 p.m. PST, said Mike O'Connor of the Federal Aviation Administration.
The planes came down a mile apart. Wreckage was scattered over 16 square miles 12 miles north of Harlem, a town of 1,100 near the Canadian border.
Mixed rain and snow put out crash-related fires that started in fields of wheat and barley, said Gene Liphicum, a Harlem Police Department dispatcher. He said winds last night were between 30 and 40 miles an hour.
McChord spokesman David Jones said seven crew members were on one plane and six on the other. They are active-duty members of the Air Force, and all are believed to be Pierce County residents. Their names were withheld until families are notified.
"It's quite a blow to the people on the base, obviously," Capt. Ray Martell said today at McChord, south of Tacoma.
Many flags on the base were flying at half-staff today.
A crisis team to help people deal with the trauma of the crash has been assembled at the base, Martell said.
Eleven of the victims are attached to the 36th Airlift Squadron at McChord. One is attached to the 8th Airlift Squadron and one to the 4th Airlift Squadron.
The planes were carrying no cargo. They were in a group of four C-141s that flew to Montana from McChord yesterday for the refueling exercise with a Washington Air National Guard KC-135 tanker plane from Fairchild Air Force Base at Spokane.
Colonel Howard Ingersoll, commander of the 62nd Airlift Wing, said he wasn't sure at what point in the refueling exercise the planes collided.
There were indications they had finished part of the refueling and one of the aircraft was moving back into formation when the collision occurred, he said. Some missions today are proceeding as scheduled, he said, but some local training missions have been canceled.
Crew members of the two planes that returned safely were not at work today but were available for interviews by Air Force investigators. Ingersoll would not specify what experience the crews involved had, other than to say they were all well-qualified and had done this operation before.
He said the normal separation in a refueling operation is 500 feet vertically and up to two miles horizontally. Planes could come as close as three-quarters of a mile to each other as one is moving back into formation, he said.
Ingersoll said the mission was to include a practice cargo drop near Moses Lake after refueling, but that was canceled after the crash.
McChord has been doing maintenance for the past six to eight months on all 50 of its C-141s for hairline cracks around windows.
Ingersoll said all the aircraft, including those that crashed, had been inspected. He did not say whether the craft that collided had cracks.
Witnesses said the accident lit up the sky.
"There was a big fireball in the sky and then it fell to the earth," said Angie Fischer, who was at her mother's house on a hilltop west of the crash site. "Then there was another fireball when it hit the ground."
Capt. Anna Pilutti, spokeswoman for the 62nd Airlift Wing at McChord, said the crash scene is about 175 miles from Malmstrom Air Force Base.
A 62-member security team from Malmstrom went to the crash site last night.
C-141s, called Starlifters, are the Air Force's second-largest cargo planes after the C-5A. The four-engine jets were used to carry the bulk of materiel to the Mideast during the Persian Gulf War.
Mayor Victor Miller of Harlem said early today that firefighters and ambulances were at the crash site and all fires had been put out.