A UPS cargo plane slammed into a field and burst into flames near an Alabama airport Wednesday, killing the pilot and co-pilot and strewing debris for hundreds of yards, authorities said.
The plane, an Airbus A300, was en route from Louisville, Ky., when it crashed on approach to Birmingham-Shuttlesworth International Airport, FAA spokeswoman Kathleen Bergen said.
The National Transportation Safety Board tweeted that it sent a "Go-Team" to investigate the cause of the crash. NTSB Board Member Robert Sumwalt said at a press conference in Washington, D.C. — moments before leaving for Birmingham — that he was optimistic the plane’s data-recording "black boxes" would be recovered.
"The board has a very good success rate at being able to recover the recorders," Sumwalt said.
Birmingham Fire Chief Ivor Brooks said both crew members were pronounced dead at the scene. The pilot and co-pilot were the only people aboard the plane, company spokesman Jeff Wafford said.
Birmingham Mayor William Bell told USA TODAY that the pilots sent no distress signal before the crash. No one on the ground was injured, he said, although debris was found on roofs and lawns of homes a half mile from the crash site.
"Debris is everywhere,” Bell said. "It took tremendous effort by the men and women of the police and fire departments to put the fire out and take control of the scene."
The crash happened at about 5 a.m. local time on an overcast morning with occasional light rain. The plane apparently struck a massive tree north of the runway and clipped some power lines, knocking out power to much of the surrounding neighborhood.
Airport Hills resident Chris Evans, 60, told the Birmingham News that he heard the crash.
"At first I thought it was thunder," he said. "The power went off and I looked out the window and saw nothing but fire."
Evans said that he was grateful that the plane had not hit any homes. "We’ve been trying to get the airport to buy up the rest of these houses for years," he said.
"This incident is very unfortunate, and our thoughts and prayers are with those involved," UPS Airlines President Mitch Nichols said in a statement. "We place the utmost value on the safety of our employees, our customers and the public. We will immediately engaged with the National Transportation Safety Board’s investigation, and we will work exhaustively on response efforts."
Flight tracking site flightaware.com shows the cargo plane, identified by the site and the FAA as flight UPS1354, dropped more than 9,000 feet over the course of two minutes about four minutes before the crash.
The plane, with tail number N155UP, is listed by the FAA as an Airbus A300 F4-622R which was manufactured in 2004. Maintenance records or information on any previous incidents involving the plane were not immediately available.
Birmingham Airport Authority spokeswoman Toni Herrera-Bast said the crash hadn’t affected airport operations.
UPS is the world’s largest package delivery company and owns 235 jets, according to UPS spokeswoman Natalie Godwin. The company operates 949 flights in the USA and 982 international flights daily, serving 381 airports in the US and 346 internationally.
In 2012, UPS delivered 4.1 billion packages and documents worldwide, Godwin said. The company daily delivers an average of 16.3 million packages and documents, including 2.3 million that go by air.
Godwin said the last UPS plane crash was in Sept. 3, 2010, when a UPS Boeing 747-400 crashed near the Dubai airport in the United Arab Emirates. Both crew members — Capt. Doug Lampe, 48, of Kentucky and First Officer Matthew Bell, 38, of Florida – were killed. It was the first fatal plane crash for UPS.
An investigation of the Dubai crash found that the plane’s cargo, which included lithium batteries, caught fire, forcing the pilots to try and return to the Dubai airport shortly after takeoff. Investigators cited the lithium batteries as a possible reason for the fire igniting.
A report in July on the UAE’s General Civil Aviation Authority’s accident investigation of the crash said "the investigation concludes with reasonable certainty that the location of the fire was in an element of the cargo that contained, among other items, lithium batteries."
Prior to the Dubai crash, UPS had had four other aircraft accidents or incidents since 1985, according to the Aviation Safety Network. The most recent was in February 2006 when a DC-8 with a fire onboard burned after landing in Philadelphia.
Larry Copeland reported from in Atlanta. Contributing: Kim Hjelmgaard in London; Mark Boxley, The (Louisville, Ky.) Courier-Journal; Associated Press