Smoke rises from a Boeing 707 used to refuel military planes, which was engulfed… (Mel Melcon / Los Angeles…)
Three crew members escaped from a civilian refueling aircraft that exploded into flames Wednesday evening during an attempted takeoff at Point Mugu Naval Air Station.
The Boeing 707 aircraft was nearly filled to capacity with 150,000 pounds of fuel that stoked intense flames and thick clouds of dark smoke that billowed for miles as firefighters tried to control the blaze, officials said.
A base spokesman said the crew members — a pilot, co-pilot and navigator — worked for Omega Aerial Refueling Services, which contracts with the Navy to refuel aircraft. They were taken to area hospitals with non-life-threatening injuries, according to the Ventura County Fire Department.
The blaze broke out about 5:25 p.m. as the aircraft skidded out of control on the far end of the main runway, said Vance Vasquez, a spokesman for the base.
Fire crews on the ground were being aided by a helicopter that made repeated water drops as flames consumed the crumpled fuselage. Base fire crews and the Ventura County Fire Department were on the scene.
According to Omega's website, the company uses a Boeing 707-300 model. Boeing Co. built the planes in Renton, Wash., from 1959 to 1982.
Although the exact age of the downed aircraft was not known, aerial refueling tankers have been a sore subject for the military for years. The massive aircraft, which are used to refuel warplanes while in flight, have been heavily criticized for being run-down and corroded. .
The Air Force has been trying to replace its fleet of aerial tankers — many of which were built during the Eisenhower administration — for more than a decade.
The Pentagon has twice awarded the contract to replace the fleet, only to see its decision overturned amid accusations of underhanded politics and discriminatory rule-making. In February, the Pentagon awarded the contract for a third time.
As firefighters continued to battle the blaze Wednesday night, Karen Harlen watched the smoke from several hundred yards away at Missile Park. A human resources manager with an aerospace company, she said she regularly comes to the park to relax and watch the planes come and go.
"I'm so happy no one was badly hurt," Harlen said. "These kids, you always worry about them."
Times staff writers Steve Chawkins and Robert J. Lopez contributed to this report.