NTSB: Engine separated from cargo plane seconds before deadly crash near Fairbanks

May 2—Federal investigators on the deadly crash of a fuel-laden cargo plane near Fairbanks say they will focus on an engine that separated from the wing just before a post-crash fire destroyed the plane.

The Douglas DC-4 went down just after leaving Fairbanks International Airport the morning of April 23, killing both pilots on board. Alaska State Troopers said the plane crashed into the Tanana River about 7 miles southwest of the airport, then slid into a bluff and was consumed by flames.

The plane was making a delivery to the Northwest Alaska village of Kobuk. The DC-4 owned and operated by Wasilla-based Alaska Air Fuel was transporting 3,400 gallons of unleaded fuel and two 100-gallon propane tanks, according to a preliminary report released Thursday by the National Transportation Safety Board.

The plane was destroyed on impact, according to the report. But the engine separated from the wing about 100 feet above the ground, coming to rest on a frozen section of the river, it said.

The engine was recovered, lead NTSB investigator Mark Ward wrote in the report, "and a detailed engine examination is pending."

Much of the plane's structure was incinerated by a large post-crash fire, according to the report.

Investigators said last week that the crew reported an in-flight fire shortly after departure and requested a return to the Fairbanks airport.

A witness spotted the plane just after it departed at about 9:55 a.m. and said the far left engine wasn't running, according to the new report. A plume of smoke was visible as the plane began a turn, and the witness said he saw the engine was on fire, the report said.

Mike Emers, owner of Rosie Creek Farm southwest of Fairbanks, told the Daily News he heard an explosion and saw one of the engines on fire, followed by the sound of additional explosions. Emers, his son, and a neighbor followed a large smoke plume to the crash site, where they tried to beat down the flames with their sweatshirts.

Surveillance video from the farm shows an explosion behind the engine, "followed by fragments of airplane wreckage falling to the ground," Ward wrote. "The airplane then begins an uncontrolled descending left turn into terrain."

The crash occurred at 10:03 a.m., about 8 minutes after the plane took off.

A report on the probable cause of the crash isn't expected until next year.

Alaska Air Fuel used the four-engine Douglas DC-4 to haul fuel to remote locations. The planes, which are increasingly rare, were originally used by the military including during World War II. The military version of the DC-4 is known as the C-54 Skymaster.

Troopers have not officially identified the two people killed in the crash because the State Medical Examiner's Office has not yet positively identified them, spokesman Austin McDaniel said Thursday.

A call to Alaska Air Fuel wasn't immediately returned on Thursday.