BIRMINGHAM, Ala. -- A UPS cargo plane crashed Wednesday morning in an open field just outside an airport in Birmingham, Ala.
There were no homes in the immediate area of the crash, said Toni Herrera-Bast, a spokeswoman for Birmingham's airport authority.
The Airbus A300 plane crashed around 5 a.m. CDT on approach to the airport, Federal Aviation Administration spokeswoman Kathleen Bergen said. The plane was en route from Louisville, Ky., Bergen said.
There was no information on injuries, but UPS spokesman Jeff Wafford said there were two crew members aboard the plane.
Herrera-Bast said the plane crashed in "open land" she described as a grassy field on the outskirts of Birmingham-Shuttlesworth International Airport. The crash hasn't affected airport operations, she said.
The scene is about a half-mile north of Runway 18, Bergen said.
Sharon Wilson, who lives near the airport, said she was in bed before dawn when an airplane went over her house at what sounded like treetop level.
The engines were making an odd sound like sputtering, she said.
"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.
At 7 a.m. Wednesday, conditions in the area were rainy with low clouds. Smoke was still rising from the scene at 7:47 a.m. There was a piece of the plane's white fuselage near a blackened area on the ground.
"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."
The two crewmembers on board were the pilot and the co-pilot, Bell said.
The plane appears to have struck a massive hardwood tree north of the runway. The top was broken out of the tree and there are pieces of a utility pole and limbs in the road. Nearby, grass was blackened near the bottom of a hill. A piece of the fuselage and an engine are visible on the crest of the hill. White smoke was pouring from the other side of the hill.
"As we work through this difficult situation, we ask for your patience, and that you keep those involved in your thoughts and prayers," Atlanta-based UPS said in a statement.
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.
Associated Press writers Becky Yonker in Louisville, Ky., and Jeff Martin in Atlanta contributed to this report.
Larry Copeland, USA TODAY 3:10 p.m. EDT August 14, 2013
Cargo planes such as the one that crashed this morning in Birmingham "have a somewhat higher accident rate than passenger aircraft," aviation consultant Hans Weber says.
"More recently, their accident rate has significantly improved because they retired some older airplanes, which were just more difficult to fly," Weber says.
He says the air cargo industry also has "invested considerable amounts of money in equipping their airplanes with improved navigation avionics, making it safer for them to land under adverse weather conditions, and into smaller airports."
"The majority of the accidents were smaller planes that had to fly into less well-equipped airports under adverse weather conditions," he says.
Another aviation consultant, George Hamlin of Fairfax, Va.-based Hamlin Transportation Consulting, says the safety records of the major package shippers, UPS and FedEx, are comparable to those of major passenger carriers American, Delta and United. "If you're comparing UPS and FedEx, there is ostensibly no difference, safety-wise," Hamlin says. "The accident rate tends to go up when you get down to (cargo carriers) operating in obscure parts of the world."
The pilot and co-pilot of a UPS cargo plane died after their Airbus A300 crashed as it was approaching Birmingham-Shuttlesworth International Airport. The cause of the crash is unknown.
The Birmingham crash was only the second fatal plane crash for UPS, which has operated its own fleet since 1981. The first occurred on Sept. 3, 2010, when a UPS Boeing 747-400 crashed near Dubai in the United Arab Emirates, killing both crewmembers. UPS has had four other aircraft incidents since 1985, according to the Aviation Safety Network.
Weber, president and owner of San Diego-based Tecop International, an aviation consultant company, says that the regulations governing cargo planes are "basically the same" as those that apply to passenger aircraft. "There are some differences," he says. For instance, the cabin environment systems on cargo planes don't have to operate at the same level as passenger aircraft, he mentioned.
"But as far as certification of the aircraft, pilot training, navigation, communications equipment — all of that is the same as for passenger aircraft."
The UPS crash is the latest in a series of plane accidents in recent weeks. On July 22, more than a dozen people were injured when a Southwest Airlines Boeing 737 jet skidded on its belly at New York's LaGuardia airport after hitting the runway nose first before breaking the front landing gear. On July 6, an Asiana Airlines Boeing 777 crashed while landing in San Francisco, killing three people and injuring more than 180.
Weber and Hamlin say the recent spate of crashes doesn't tell them anything about current airline safety.
"What it says, I think, is that there is still some finite probability for an accident, which will always be there, because nothing can be made 100% safe. It's impossible," Weber says. "Also, the San Francisco accident and the LaGuardia accident appear to have been due to pilot error."
"The cause of none of them is known," Hamlin says. "The first thing you look for is, did they happen for similar reasons. All three were in the landing mode, but by itself that doesn't tell us anything."
"This is a good time to take a good look. When you get a spate of incidents, it's time to sit down and make sure you're doing everything in your job to make sure there's not another one," Hamlin says. "The fact that we've had another one is probably a good time to review procedures and rules. Once we learn why they happened, that may point toward further changes in procedures and training."
The National Transportation Safety Board is still investigating the San Francisco and New York accidents, but the agency hasn't yet determined the cause of either. The agency is also investigating the UPS crash.
BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (AP) — Federal investigators said Saturday they haven't found any problems with the controls in a UPS cargo jet that crashed while landing in Alabama, killing the two pilots.
National Transportation Safety Board member Robert Sumwalt said the cockpit controls in the A300 aircraft appeared to be working before the crash, and they matched the positions of the airplane's flaps and rudders.
Sumwalt's comments came during a news conference Saturday at Birmingham's airport, where investigators are still sifting through the wreckage of the twin-engine aircraft.
Investigators previously said they did not see any problems with the plane's engines, but that a cockpit warning went off seconds before the crash. The alarm, called a sink rate warning, indicated the plane was descending faster than normal.
Sumwalt said the plane's data recorder showed the autopilot was engaged until the final second before the end of the recording, but he added that was not unusual.
The aircraft went down less than a mile from the end of a 7,000-foot runway that lacks the equipment for full instrument landings at Birmingham Shuttlesworth International Airport, located a few miles east of the city's downtown. A 12,000-foot runway with a more complete guidance system was closed for maintenance on its lights at the time of the crash, which occurred about 4:45 a.m. CDT Wednesday.
Pilots consider the approach to the shorter runway more tricky because of the lack of full instrumentation and a large hill at the end of the runway, but the NTSB has not indicated whether the runway's configuration might have been a factor in the accident.
The flight data recorder showed the airplane was traveling about 161 mph, the expected speed for such an approach, Sumwalt said.
UPS has identified the victims of the crash as Capt. Cerea Beal, Jr., 58, of Matthews, N.C.; and First Officer Shanda Fanning, 37, of Lynchburg, Tenn. Beal was flying the aircraft at the time of the accident, the NTSB said previously, but it's unkown so far whether either pilot had previously attempted a landing on the runway.
Investigators are trying to determine how much rest the pilots had before taking off for Birmingham.
The crew started its day Tuesday in Rockford, Ill., before making a stop in Peoria, Ill., Sumwalt said. They then flew to Louisville, Ky., which was the final stop before the ill-fated, 45-minute trip to Birmingham.
Sumwalt said investigators have determined the pilots obtained keys to rooms that UPS has set aside for crew members to sleep, and they are still trying to determine whether the rooms were used.
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