KC-135 tanker from McConnell AFB crashes in Kyrgyzstan; crew not from base

A U.S. Air Force KC-135 refueling tanker, which was based at Wichita’s McConnell Air Force Base, crashed Friday in the rugged mountains of Kyrgyzstan.

A statement from U.S. Sen. Jerry Moran's office Saturday morning confirmed that the tanker's home base was McConnell and that all three crew members aboard were killed. It also stated the crew members were not from McConnell.

“I was saddened to hear today that a McConnell KC-135 tanker crashed in Kyrgyzstan,” Moran said. “The three crew members on board were working to protect our country and keep our freedom within reach, and we should all be grateful for their service. I ask that all Kansans join me in keeping the family and friends of these crew members in their thoughts and prayers in the days ahead.”

McConnell is one of the U.S. bases that supplies personnel and equipment to the Transit Center at Manas, the name of the U.S. base in Kyrgyzstan in Central Asia.

Photos of the tanker’s wreckage also indicate the tanker is from McConnell, which is home to more than 60 KC-135s.

Crews at Manas fly tankers from U.S. bases other than their own.

Fairchild Air Force Base in Spokane, Wash., also is home to the tankers and provides planes and personnel to Manas.

Manas is a key U.S. base for operations to the war in Afghanistan.

Officials at the U.S. base said they had no information yet on the cause of the crash.

The plane crashed at 2:55 p.m. (Kyrgyzstan time) near Chaldovar, a village 100 miles west of the Manas base outside the Kyrgyz capital, Bishkek. Pieces of the plane, including its tail, were scattered across a grassy field bordered by mountains; the air was infused with the heavy stench of fuel.

The plane was on a refueling mission for Afghanistan war operations at the time of the crash, a U.S. defense official in Washington said, speaking anonymously because he was not authorized to discuss the details of an ongoing investigation.

The front section of the aircraft has not yet been found, Kyrgyz Emergencies Minister Kubatbek Boronov told the Associated Press. He said searchers also have not found the flight recorders from the plane, which was badly burned in the crash.

Search teams on Saturday found the bodies of two American crew members near where their military refueling plane crashed in the rugged mountains of Kyrgyzstan, while the third crew member was still missing, the emergencies minister of the Central Asian nation said.

Officials at the U.S. Transit Center at the Manas base have released no information yet on the cause of the crash and could not immediately be reached on Saturday for any further information.

Emergencies Minister Kubatbek Boronov told The Associated Press that Kyrgyz search teams found the two fragmented bodies Saturday morning and they have not yet been identified. He said the Kyrgyz rescuers were working with U.S. military personnel from Manas to search for the third crewman and the flight recorders.

Dozens of U.S. military personnel scoured the area on Saturday and set up a security cordon around the crash site.

Parts of the plane were scattered across a wide area near the village of Chaldovar. Some pieces, including the tail, came down in a grassy valley bordered by steep mountains, but others landed in spots much more difficult for search teams to reach.

One resident of the agricultural and sheep-grazing area said the plane exploded in flight.

“I was working with my father in the field, and I heard an explosion. When I looked up at the sky I saw the fire. When it was falling, the plane split into three pieces," Sherikbek Turusbekov told an AP reporter at the site.

A Kyrgyz civil aviation official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said storm clouds over the region could have caused the explosion, Interfax reported.

The U.S. base, which is adjacent to Manas International Airport outside Bishkek, was established in late 2001 to support the international military campaign in Afghanistan. It functions as an interim point for troops going into or out of Afghanistan and as a home for the tanker planes that refuel warplanes in flight.

The Manas base has been the subject of a contentious dispute between the United States and its host nation.

In 2009, the U.S. reached an agreement with the Kyrgyz government to use it in return for $60 million a year. But the lease runs out in June 2014, and the U.S. wants to keep the base longer to aid in the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan. Kyrgyzstan is reluctant to extend the lease.

On Monday, a Boeing 747 cargo plane crashed just after takeoff from the U.S. military base in Bagram, Afghanistan, killing all seven people aboard. The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating that crash since it was on the Bagram air base.

Contributing: Rick Plumlee of The Wichita Eagle and Associated Press

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