Base mourns deaths of nine airmen

NINE elite USAF airmen were killed when their stealth plane plummeted into an Albanian mountainside and exploded in a ball of flames.Last night rescuers, hampered by blizzard conditions as they battled to get to the remote crash site of the RAF Mildenhall aircraft, confirmed no-one had survived the tragedy – plunging the Suffolk base into mourning.

NINE elite USAF airmen were killed when their stealth plane plummeted into an Albanian mountainside and exploded in a ball of flames.

Last night rescuers, hampered by blizzard conditions as they battled to get to the remote crash site of the RAF Mildenhall aircraft, confirmed no-one had survived the tragedy - plunging the Suffolk base into mourning.

Bosses at the station - along with members of the local community - fought to control their emotions as they spoke of the disaster, which is the worst to hit the US base since the Americans moved there in the 1950s.

The grief-stricken families of the dead airmen were last night being comforted by friends and colleagues and commanders said they would also be offered expert care to help them through the grim days ahead.

As air force chiefs promised a full investigation into the crash, TV pictures showed still smoking parts of the broken fuselage of the plane- assigned to Mildenhall's 352nd Special Operations Group - lying in a snow-covered wooded area.

The MC-130H Talon II plane - which cost $155 million and can fly under radar - went down at just before 11pm on Thursday night while on a joint training mission with Albanian forces.

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One eyewitness said: “We heard a thundering noise and saw flames rise high in the sky.”

A US team was last night due to examine the wreckage and the crash site, officials said.

Speaking at a press conference at RAF Mildenhall, Colonel Dennis Jones - commander of the 352nd Special Operations Group - fought back tears as he gave details of the tragedy.

His thoughts turned immediately to the families and friends of the airmen involved: “At this critical time in our unit our hearts and prayers go out to the family members and squadron mates of the crew. One death affects a family, but nine deaths will have a huge impact.”

Col Jones said some of the victims had families while others did not but all were an integral part of the air force family and their loss would be hard to bear.

He went on: “We would like to thank the Albanian Government, their military forces and the American Embassy for all the support they have given us.”

He said the stealth plane was taking part in a joint training mission with Albanian forces “to increase military co-operation between the two countries”.

Col Jones confirmed that nine service personnel were on board but was unable to give further details: “As the group awaits news we are making sure the families are getting the support that they need. The air force is a close family and we take every measure to ensure our members are taken care of.”

He said USAF forces were making their way to the site last night: “We have sent more people to Albania and the next step is to get to the crash site and secure it. A safety board will be convened.”

The painstaking rescue operation through the mountainous Albanian terrain near the capital Tirana ended when search teams recovered all nine bodies of the American servicemen.

Albanian Special Forces travelled by foot to the crash site and officials from the tiny country said they had committed scores of troops and other forces to search for the bodies.

The plane crashed near the remote village of Rovie, in the Drizez Mountains, about 35 miles south east of Tirana.

The bodies of four of the American personnel on board were found yesterday morning and five more were later found inside the plane, Albanian officials said.

Although the exact cause of the crash was yesterday unclear, US European Command in Germany said it would now be investigated.

One report said that the plane hit the mountain after apparently flying too low in the sparsely populated region while Albanian Public Order Ministry spokesman Florion Serjani said the control tower at Rinas airport saw the plane move in an “irregular way” while it was flying over a valley in the south east of the country.

There is thought to have been only one distress signal before the plane disappeared from radar screens across Albania and those in the southern Italian port of Brindisi.

Speaking from European Command in Stuttgart, Major Sarah Strachan said the names of those involved would not be officially released until the next of kin had been informed but she said there was “no suggestion” of any foul play.

US Ambassador to Albania, Marcie B. Ries, praised officials in the Balkan state, which has close ties to the American military, following the joint search and rescue operation.

Ms Ries said: “This is an example of the excellent cooperation existing between the United States and Albania. We are very grateful for the tremendous support from the Albanian military.”

The airmen involved in the tragedy were part of the Special Operation Group's 7th Special Operations Squad. It is the only special operations unit based in Europe.

The crew was a few days into a two-week tour in Albania when the tragedy happened. There are currently more than 100 personnel from RAF Mildenhall stationed there.

Following yesterday's tragic news, spokesman for neighbouring RAF Lakenheath Will Ackerman said: “All Air Force members are part of one big family and our thoughts, prayers and condolences go out to the families and friends of those who might have lost their lives in the accident.

“Any time there is a loss to any of the Air Force family it is very tragic and we are here to support Mildenhall in anyway we can.”

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