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Military Plane Crashes on Training Flight, Killing 16

By Bob Secter
Los Angeles Times

EVANSVILLE, Ind.

A huge military transport plane nose-dived into a parking lot just outside the regional airport here Thursday, touching off a fireball of burning aviation fuel that engulfed a motel and restaurant and killed at least 16 people.

"I heard a plane sputter and then the building started shaking and the lights flickered," said garage mechanic Eric Huffman, who was working across the street. "It felt like an earthquake had hit."

The Lockheed C-130 turboprop was based in Louisville, Ky., and was on a training flight for the Kentucky National guard. Witnesses said that it had been practicing a series of "touch-and-go" takeoffs and landings when it appeared to lose power shortly before 10 a.m. CST and plunged almost nose first into the ground. Debris from the crash slid into JoJo's restaurant and an adjacent four-story motel called the Drury Inn.

Authorities said that all five crew members appeared to have died in the crash. Two other victims were found in the restaurant kitchen and nine in the motel, mostly on the fourth floor, said a spokesman for the coroner. At least 14 others were admitted to local hospitals suffering from burns and smoke inhalation.

It was the second worst aviation disaster in the history of this Southern Indiana community. In December 1977, a chartered DC-3 crashed on takeoff from the same airport, killing 29 people, including the entire University of Evansville Purple Aces basketball team.

The latest tragedy also brought back eerie reminders of another accident only four years ago when an Air Force trainer plane lost power and smacked into the side of another airport motel, killing 10 people inside. That crash also took place in Indiana, only 200 miles up the road in Indianapolis.

Military investigators dispatched from Scott Air Force Base in Belleville, Ill., were still poring over the debris Thursday night. Spokesmen said that it could take several days to determine what went wrong.

The plane crashed along a commercial strip just south of the airport along busy U.S. Highway 41. The site was only a few hundred yards from a sprawling Whirlpool refrigerator factory, the largest employer in Southern Indiana.

Mike Genpre, who worked nearby, said that he ran toward the motel after he heard the explosion and saw an "incredible wall of smoke and a tower of flames." Despite intense heat, Genpre said that he made his way into the building and checked rooms on the first three floors but could find nobody. But when he reached the fourth floor, he said, smoke was everywhere and he was forced to crawl on his stomach to see where he was going and find an air pocket.

"I started yelling," he said. "We heard some people. One woman walked out very disoriented. Her skin was covered black with smoke. She was very shaken up. I heard screaming but I couldn't make it out. ... Another lady crawled to the landing. She said she'd been blown through the door ... she was burnt very badly on her hair, skin and face. It was all very gruesome."

Dan Rush, in Evansville for a business meeting, said that he had flown in C-130s when he was in the Air Force. So when he happened to notice the aircraft take off as he was driving on a nearby highway he instantly realized that something was amiss.

"It just wasn't right," Rush said. "It started side slipping and nosed to the ground. ... It was on a very steep angle. ... From what we could tell, it went right into the parking lot. ... I've never seen anything like it, even close. The fireball was unreal. ... There was extremely black smoke and flame. There was a real brilliant core. I have no idea what caused that."

Capt. Dan Gardner, a spokesman for the Indiana Air National Guard, said that the aircraft had completed two touch and goes, a procedure where the pilot settles the plane down on the runway but lifts off again without coming to a stop. The crash took place on the third such procedure.

The aircraft was assigned to the 123rd Tactical Air Lift Wing of the Kentucky National Guard based in Louisville, about 100 miles away.

Lt. Col. Ed Tonini, chief of public affairs for the Kentucky Guard, said that the Evansville airport is frequently used for training flights because it is close to Louisville but has far less commercial traffic.

All five crewmen on the aircraft were members of the Kentucky Guard. The pilot, who flew commercial cargo flights in civilian life, was identified by guard officials as Maj. Richard A. Strang, 39, from Floyds Knobs, Ky. Authorities did not immediately release the identities of the civilians killed on the ground.

The four-turboprop C-130, a model with a good safety record, has been a workhorse for the Air Force and Air National Guard for more than 35 years. Almost 100 feet in length, with a 132-foot wingspan, the C-130 can carry a payload of about 20 tons at a cruising speed of more than 350 mph.

Under normal configuration, the plane carries almost 7,000 gallons of fuel; this reservoir of fuel that fed the devastating blaze after the crash.