FT. BRAGG, N.C. — A C-130 cargo plane performing a tank-dropping maneuver crashed and burned on a dirt runway Wednesday, killing five servicemen but stopping 100 yards short of bleachers filled with spectators.
Four of six Air Force crewmen on the plane were killed, as well as an Army soldier on the ground, said Capt. Brian Irving of Pope Air Force Base, where the four-engine turboprop was based.
The two survivors were being transferred to Brooke Army Medical Center at Ft. Sam Houston, Tex. There was no report on their condition.
Irving said the soldier killed on the ground was in a military vehicle hit by the plane after it skidded 1,000 yards down a dirt runaway and into some trees.
The plane was displaying a technique in which a parachute is used to pull a tank or other vehicle out the rear cargo door while the plane is only a few feet off the ground, officials said. The maneuver was part of a military exercise open to the public.
Irving said he did not know how many spectators were in the bleachers, which were designed for 5,200 people.
Capt. Donald Sensing of the public information office at Pope Air Force Base said the landing gear is always extended for the maneuver and it was not unusual for the wheels to hit the ground.
"We really saw what it didn't do," Sensing said. "The aircraft should have gained altitude, but it did not. Then, the aircraft went out of sight and the next thing we saw was a ball of fire."
"There was a malfunction," Irving said. "Where the malfunction was, or what caused it, I really couldn't speculate. Something just went wrong."
The plane's tail section was nearly three-fourths of a mile from where the tank was dropped on the runway. Debris was scattered down the runway, with the plane's tailgate only a few hundred feet from the tank.
Witnesses said the tank appeared to hang on the edge of the tailgate as the plane skimmed five feet above the runway. Authorities estimated it was traveling about 150 m.p.h.
One witness said the crowd rose in unison as the plane skidded down the runway, and there was pandemonium for a few minutes as some spectators tried to run out on the drop zone to help.