BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — Federal investigators found no initial evidence that a UPS cargo jet suffered engine failure or was burning before it clipped trees at the end of a runway and slammed into a hillside, killing the two crew members onboard, officials said Thursday.
A former Marine helicopter pilot, Beal had been with UPS since 1990. Fanning, described by UPS as an aviation enthusiast who was active and well-known in Lynchburg, had worked with the company since 2006.
Robert Sumwalt, a member of the National Transportation Safety Board, said during a news conference that the findings were only preliminary, and investigators hope to get additional evidence from data and voice recorders that were pulled from the plane’s burned-out tail section earlier in the day.
“They were blackened and sooted,” he said of the recorders, one of which captures voices in the cockpit and the other that records flight information about the plane’s operation. “We are cautiously optimistic that we will be able to obtain good data.”
The twin-engine A300 bound for Birmingham from Louisville, Ky., was attempting to land on a 7,000-foot-long runway at Birmingham Shuttlesworth International Airport when it crashed before dawn Wednesday. Sumwalt said the airport’s other, 12,000-foot runway was shut down for repair work on its lights at the time.
Pilots are forced to navigate over a large hill to reach the shorter runway, and the plane clipped trees in a neighborhood before plummeting into the ground well short of the landing area.
Sumwalt said there was no indication of problems with the lights on the runway where the jet attempted to land, but investigators did find pieces of wood from trees inside an engine, plus dirt.
Investigators are still analyzing the debris, he said.
“We’re just in the very beginning stages of the investigation,” he said.
One of the investigators’ tasks will be to determine why the plane was low enough to hit trees. The impact sheared off pieces of the aircraft and sent them crashing onto two homes along with large pieces of limbs.
Residents who live near the airport said they have worried for years about the possibility of a plane crash.
The plane went down in a rolling field where a neighborhood stood until airport officials began buying up homes and razing them to clear the area near the end of the runway. Cornelius and Barbara Benson, whose trees were hit by the plane, said they haven’t received a buyout offer but hope that will now change.
“Hopefully we can get out of here now,” said Cornelius Benson.
The jet clipped trees around the Bensons’ yard, leaving broken plastic and twisted metal on the ground.
Other neighbors reported seeing flames coming from the aircraft and hearing its engines struggle in the final moments before impact. Sumwalt didn’t address whether flames could have erupted after the plane struck trees but while still airborne.
Officials previously said the pilots didn’t issue any distress call before the crash.
A relative of Fanning had previously identified her as one of the crew members who died.
Wes Fanning, who said he was the woman’s brother-in-law, said Shanda Fanning had been flying since she was a teenager.
He said officials contacted her mother and that UPS representatives were with the family.
Hank Williamson, manager of the municipal airport in Shelbyville, Tenn., where Fanning grew up, hired her to refuel planes and assist customers in 1999. She held the job for three years and earned a reputation as a personable employee and good pilot who “lived and breathed aviation.”
“Her life’s dream was to fly,” he said. “She was doing what she loved to do. She was very conscientious about it. Her goal in life was to be an airline pilot for a major carrier.”
Lin Tillman, who worked with her at the airport at the time, recalled that Fanning spoke of how her father worked long hours at a manufacturing plant to help her get through college and to obtain her pilot’s license. That helped kindle a strong desire to succeed, as she progressed from flying a single-engine plane to eventually huge UPS cargo jets.
“She said she became determined to never let him down, because he sacrificed for her to become a pilot,” Tillman said.
Ryan Wimbleduff, who lives just across the street from the airport property, said the crash shook his house violently. Standing in his driveway, he and his mother could see the burning wreckage.
Wimbleduff said it can be unsettling to live so near low-flying, big aircraft.
“We’ll sometimes be outside and joke about being able to throw rocks at them, they’re so close,” he said.
Cornelius Benson, 75, said planes routinely fly so low over his house that a few years ago, the airport authority sent crews to trim treetops.
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 came 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.
The crash in Birmingham scattered cargo throughout the field where the plane landed. UPS spokesman Mike Mangeot said in an email that the company was reaching out to customers who had packages on the flight to address claims. He said the company was providing round-the-clock support to the families of the two crew members.