BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — A UPS cargo plane crashed and burned early today on the outskirts of an Alabama airport, killing two crew members and scattering boxes and charred debris across a grassy field, officials said.
The pilot and co-pilot, the only people on board the jet, were killed, said Birmingham Fire Chief Ivor Brooks. The crash site burned before the blaze was extinguished, Brooks said.
The plane crashed in an open field on the outskirts of Birmingham-Shuttlesworth International Airport, said Toni Herrera-Bast, a spokeswoman for the city’s airport authority. The crash had not affected airport operations, but it knocked power lines down in the area and appeared to have toppled at least one tree and utility pole.
Officials had released few details on the crash or what may have caused it.
National Transportation Safety Board officials said an investigative team was on its way to the scene. At 7 a.m. today, conditions in the area were rainy with low clouds.
“The plane is in several sections,” said Birmingham Mayor William Bell, who was briefed on the situation by the city’s fire chief. “There were two to three small explosions, but we think that was related to the aviation fuel.”
UPS spokesman Jeff Wafford said the plane was carrying a variety of cargo, but he did not elaborate. The names and hometowns of the crewmembers have not been released.
Chunks of riveted metal that appeared to be from the plane landed in the yard of Cornelius and Barbara Benson, who live in a two-story, split-foyer house just a short walk from the crash site.
Barbara Benson, 72, said she was awakened from sleep at the time of the crash by “this big sonic boom.”
“I saw a big red flash through my bedroom window,” she said.
As it got light, the couple were able to see that the tops of trees around their property had been knocked onto the ground and that they were missing a piece of their back deck.
Cornelius Benson, 75, said planes routinely fly so low over his house that a few years ago, the airport authority sent crews to remove the tops from trees around his house.
“The planes come so close sometimes I’ve been able to wave at the captains as they pass,” Barbara Benson said.
“It was just a matter of time before something happened,” Cornelius Benson said.
Sharon Wilson, who also lives near the airport, said she was in bed before dawn when she heard what sounded like engines sputtering as the plane went over her house.
“It sounded like an airplane had given out of fuel. We thought it was trying to make it to the airport. But a few minutes later we heard a loud ‘Boom!’” she said.
Another resident, Jerome Sanders, lives directly across from the runway. He said he heard a plane just before dawn and could see flames seconds before it crashed.
“It was on fire before it hit,” Sanders said.
Residents of a home about a half-mile away from the crash site called police to report that a piece of the plane had fallen on their rooftop, Birmingham Fire Battalion Chief C.W. Mardis said. Police were dispatched to investigate that report, one of two in a neighborhood known as Airport Hills, Mardis said.
James Giles, who lives just off the airport’s property, said the plane missed his home by a couple hundred yards, judging from the tree damage and debris. He was away at work at the time, but said it was clear from the scene that the plane was attempting to land on the north-south runway that is typically used by much smaller aircraft. Large planes such as the A300 typically use the bigger east-west runway to land in Birmingham, he said.
“They were just trying to get to a landing spot, anywhere,” he said.
Atlanta-based UPS said in a statement that “as we work through this difficult situation, we ask for your patience, and that you keep those involved in your thoughts and prayers.”
Previously, a UPS cargo plane crashed on Sept. 3, 2010, in the United Arab Emirates, just outside Dubai. Both pilots were killed. Authorities there blamed the crash on its load of between 80,000 to 90,000 lithium batteries, which are sensitive to temperature. Investigators found that a fire on board likely began in the cargo containing the batteries.
The Airbus A300 that had taken off from Louisville, Ky., crashed around 5 a.m. CDT about a half-mile from the runway, said Federal Aviation Administration spokeswoman Kathleen Bergen said.
Airbus said in a news release that the plane was built in 2003 and had logged about 11,000 flight hours over 6,800 flights.
The A300 was Airbus’ first plane, and the type first flew in 1972. American Airlines retired its last A300 in 2009, and no U.S. passenger airlines have flown it since then. Airbus quit building them in 2007 after making a total of 816 A300 and A310s.