By Yereth Rosen
ANCHORAGE, Alaska (Reuters) - All four crew members were killed in a U.S. Air Force cargo plane that crashed in flames while practicing for an aviation show at Elmendorf Air Force Base, the Air Force said Thursday.
The C-17 Globemaster went down Wednesday evening in a wooded area near an airfield in Anchorage shortly after taking off, the military said.
The accident is believed to be the first crash of a C-17, manufactured by Boeing, since the massive jet joined the Air Force fleet in 1995 as its newest cargo plane.
"We are confirming four dead," said Lieutenant-Colonel Karen Platt, an Air Force spokeswoman.
A fireball and plume of smoke over the area were visible to nearby residents shortly after the crash. Some eyewitnesses said the plane appeared to be making a strange turn while flying low over the area just before it crashed.
Three of the dead were members of the Alaska Air National Guard, and the fourth was on active duty at Elmendorf, the base said in a statement.
The plane was assigned to the 3rd Wing at Elmendorf, a unit consisting of 6,000 Air Force personnel who fly fighter jets and other military aircraft.
The base said a board of officers would investigate the crash. The names of the dead were being withheld pending notification of next of kin, base spokesman Bob Hall said.
Lieutenant General Dana Atkins told a new conference on Wednesday the plane was "doing a practice demonstration profile" it was to perform at the annual Arctic Thunder air show this weekend when it crashed.
In light of the accident, Atkins said, the military was considering whether to go on with the aviation show, which also features precision flying demonstrations by the Navy's Blue Angels and the Canadian Forces Snowbirds.
The crash occurred during damp, cloudy weather.
Elmendorf's worst air crash was in September 1995 when several geese were sucked into the engine of an AWACS plane just after takeoff. That plane was on a training mission as well. All 24 crew members were killed.
The first C-17 squadron went into operation in 1995. The aircraft is 174 feet long, has a wingspan of nearly 170 feet and can carry up to 170,900 pounds (77,500 kg), according to the Air Force.
Aviation analyst Richard Aboulafia of the Teal Group said Boeing has built about 200 of the planes, most of which went to the Air Force.
He said the Elmendorf accident was the only crash he knew of involving the plane since it went into service. "It's got a very good reputation," Aboulafia said.
(Editing by Greg McCune and Mohammad Zargham)