DOVER, Del. – All 17 people aboard a C-5 cargo plane survived a crash that shattered the aircraft into pieces, which some former pilots credited with the sheer size and design of the craft.
The plane, laden with supplies for U.S. troops fighting in Iraq, belly-landed 21 minutes after takeoff Monday from Dover Air Force Base. It plowed into an open, grassy area about a half-mile short of the runway but did not explode or catch fire.
The tail and nose section were ripped from the fuselage, along with one of the four engines. Some of the 250,000 pounds of fuel spilled on the ground but did not ignite.
Seven people aboard the plane were hospitalized. Others were able to walk away from the wreckage covered in jet fuel and had to be decontaminated.
"With that much jet fuel on the plane, not to explode, not to have consumed everyone's life, is just miraculous," Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del., a formal naval flight officer, said in a telephone interview after visiting the scene.
The sheer size of the C-5, roughly the length of a football field, likely contributed to there being no fatalities, according to former C-5 pilots.
The fact that the fuel is stored in the wings, which unlike many other planes are mounted atop the fuselage, also may explain the absence of fire, said retired Col. Randall Larsen, a former C-5 pilot who is now director of the Institute for Homeland Security, a think tank in Arlington, Va.
"By grace, it did not explode," said Col. Chad T. Manske, 436th Airlift Wing vice commander.
The plane belonged to the 436th Airlift Wing, the active duty unit at Dover, but was being flown by a crew from the 512th Airlift Wing, a reserve unit.
Base spokeswoman Lt. Chris Sukach said there were two active-duty personnel on the plane and 11 reservists, 10 from Dover and one from Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio. Four civilians also were aboard.
Three of those aboard were flown by helicopter to Christiana Care hospital in Newark, where they were in fair condition. Four others were kept overnight for observation at Kent General Hospital in Dover.
The crash remains under investigation by Air Force officials.
Officials said the plane, which was bound for a U.S. naval air station in Spain, and then on to the Middle East, had made an unscheduled maintenance stop last month at Robins Air Force Base in Georgia, but they did not offer any details.
Faye Banks, a spokeswoman at Robins, said the plane had undergone its regularly scheduled maintenance in September 2000 and was not due for another visit until September 2007.
In a typical week, about nine C-5 planes take off from the Delaware base, according to a base spokesman. The huge, lumbering airplanes are a routine fixture for local residents, who barely give them a second thought.
"Because they're so good at their jobs, we kind of forget how dangerous their job is," said Dover's mayor, Stephen Speed, a former Navy aviator.