Crew of fuel plane reported fire just before fatal crash near Fairbanks

The cargo plane that crashed Tuesday, April 23, 2024, was flying to a remote Alaska community to deliver fuel. The plane is photographed here, parked in Fairbanks, in August 2023. (KUAC)

Federal officials say the pilots of a cargo plane carrying thousands of gallons of fuel reported a fire just after taking off from Fairbanks Tuesday, then tried to turn back before they died in a fiery crash along the Tanana River.

The Federal Aviation Administration said in an incident report Wednesday that both pilots of the Douglas C-54, a four-engine propeller plane, were killed at about 10 a.m. Tuesday in the crash roughly seven miles south of Fairbanks International Airport.

Officials have not yet identified the two people killed in the crash or the cause of the onboard fire.

The flight was operated by Alaska Air Fuel, according to Clint Johnson, the National Transportation Safety Board’s Alaska chief. The Wasilla-based company could not be reached for comment Wednesday. 

According to Johnson, the C-54 was carrying 3,200 gallons of fuel oil bound for Kobuk, a small community roughly 300 miles away in the Northwest Arctic Borough. The plane had an additional 1,300 gallons of aviation gas in its own fuel tanks. 

a plane crash site
A hillside riverbank about seven miles south of the Fairbanks International Airport smolders after a fuel plane crashed Tuesday, April 23, 2024. (Courtesy Mike Emers)

A NTSB review of the pilots’ recorded radio calls with air traffic controllers, posted online by aviation data website FlightAware, offered additional details on the flight’s final moments.

“Shortly after departure, the crew reported to departure control that they had a fire on board — they weren’t specific as far as where that fire was, they just said they had a fire on board,” Johnson said. “They needed to return immediately to Fairbanks International. And shortly thereafter, we lost all ADS-B (tracking data), radar and also radio communications from the accident airplane.”

Johnson said investigators are interviewing witnesses like farmer Mike Emers, who said he saw one of the plane’s engines burning just before it crashed. They were also trying to reach pilots of other planes in Tuesday’s busy airspace around Fairbanks, in case they had seen other details prior to the crash.

RELATED: Fairbanks-area neighborhood shaken by fatal cargo plane crash

a man walks near trucks
Mike Emers, owner of the Rosie Creek Farm across the Tanana from Fairbanks, said he saw the plane go down Tuesday, April 23, 2024. (Robyne/KUAC)

On the ground, Johnson said, conditions on the Tanana River pose challenges for search crews.

“This airplane crashed on a bluff, downhill on a bluff,” Johnson said. “Once the impact took place, a lot of the wreckage or some of the wreckage ended up in the river and on top of the rotten frozen ice. Right now, obviously, we’ve got some higher temperatures in the Fairbanks area; that ice is days from going out. So a lot of that stuff will probably eventually go through the ice.”

Alaska State Troopers said in an online dispatch that searchers were continuing to recover the pilots’ remains Wednesday. Troopers spokesman John Dougherty said by phone that the crash victims will not be named until they have been positively identified by the state medical examiner’s office.

State wildland firefighters said they responded to the crash site Tuesday and were able to prevent flames from spreading to trees in the area. Officials with the state Department of Environmental Conservation were still evaluating the crash site for the extent of any spill from the plane’s cargo overnight Tuesday.

KUAC’s Robyne and Tim Ellis contributed information to this story.

Chris Klint is a web producer and breaking news reporter at Alaska Public Media. Reach him at Read more about Chris here.

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