BIRMINGHAM, Ala. – A UPS cargo plane crashed into a field near the Birmingham airport Wednesday, killing two pilots and scattering wreckage over a wide rural area moments after witnesses heard the massive jet coming in at treetop level.
People living near the airfield reported seeing flames coming from the aircraft and hearing its engines struggle in the final moments before impact.
“It was on fire before it hit,” said Jerome Sanders, who lives directly across from the runway.
The plane, an A300 that had departed from Louisville, Ky., went down around daybreak about a half-mile from Birmingham-Shuttlesworth Airport. It broke into several pieces and caught fire. The pilot and co-pilot were the only people aboard.
The National Transportation Safety Board sent a team of investigators to the scene.
A preliminary investigation indicated the pilots did not make any distress calls, board member Robert Sumwalt said.
UPS spokesman Jeff Wafford said the jet was carrying a variety of cargo. He did not elaborate.
The pilots’ names were not immediately released.
But a man who identified himself as a family member said one of the pilots was Shanda Fanning, a woman in her mid-30s from Lynchburg, Tenn.
The plane was built in 2003 and had logged about 11,000 flight hours over 6,800 flights, Airbus said in a news release.
The A300, Airbus’ first plane, began flying in 1972. Airbus quit building them in 2007 after making a total of 816 A300 and A310s. The model was retired from U.S. passenger service in 2009.
Wednesday’s crash comes nearly three years after another UPS cargo plane crashed in the United Arab Emirates, just outside Dubai. Both pilots were killed.
Authorities there blamed the Sept. 3, 2010, crash on the jet’s load of 80,000 to 90,000 lithium batteries, which are sensitive to temperature. Investigators determined that a fire probably began in the cargo containing the batteries.