Military plane crashes, 17 walk away from site

By Randall Chase The Associated Press

DOVER, Del. – A huge military cargo plane faltered after takeoff and belly-landed short of the Dover Air Force Base runway yesterday, breaking apart and drenching some of the 17 people aboard with fuel but causing no fire or life-threatening injuries.

“It is a miracle. Absolutely a miracle,” said Lt. Col. Mark Ruse, commander of the base’s 436th Air Wing Civil Engineering squadron. “If you look at the condition of that plane and 17 people are still alive right now – it is absolutely amazing.”

Military officials said the C-5 Galaxy, the military’s largest plane at more than six stories high and 247 feet long, developed some kind of problem soon after taking off for Spain about 6:30 a.m. and attempted to return to the base.

It crashed in an open, grassy area about a half-mile short of the runway, breaking in two behind the cockpit. The tail assembly landed several hundred yards away and an engine was thrown forward by the impact.

“It looks like it kind of slid along the ground almost like a water landing of sorts,” Ruse said.

Details of the problem were not immediately released. But there was no fire or explosion, and pilots familiar with the C-5 say its sheer size – roughly that of a football field – likely contributed to the fact that there were no deaths.

“It’s like being in a four-story building,” said retired Col. Randall Larsen, a former C-5 pilot who described the plane as one of the safest in Air Force history.

The crew did “a miraculous job” handling the situation, said Hans Reigle, a former C-5 flight instructor at Dover.

The fact that the fuel is stored in the wings, which unlike many other planes are mounted atop the fuselage, may explain the absence of fire, added Larsen, director of the Institute for Homeland Security, a think tank in Arlington, Va.

Some of the crew members were able to walk away and none suffered life-threatening injuries, hospital and military officials said.

Fourteen were taken to Kent General Hospital in Dover, and three were admitted. Some were covered with flammable jet fuel and had to be decontaminated in the hospital parking lot before they could be taken inside.

Three others were taken by helicopter to Christiana Hospital in Newark.

Larsen said that if the crew was able maintain some control of the aircraft, it was not surprising that they survived.

“Just make sure the wings are level and you are in a landing attitude,” he said. “The C-5 is so unique. When you’re sitting in the pilot seat, I think your rear end is about 43 feet above the ground.”

The plane belonged to the 436th Airlift Wing, but was being flown by a reserve crew from the 512th Airlift Wing, a reserve unit. Capt. John Sheets of the Air Mobility Command at Scott Air Force Base in Illinois, said there was one active-duty airman, a flying crew chief, from the 436th on board as part of the “blended crew.”

Sheets said two Air Force panels will investigate the crash. A safety board will try to determine whether any issues need to be addressed immediately to prevent additional crashes. An accident investigation board will conduct an in-depth investigation that could take two to three months.