CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) – A commuter plane taking off in clear weather yesterday veered sharply back toward the airport and crashed into the side of a hangar, bursting into flames and killing all 21 people aboard.
The cause of the nation’s first deadly airline accident in more than a year was not immediately clear. Aviation officials said the pilot reported an unspecified emergency to the tower just before the crash.
US Airways Express Flight 5481 hit the corner of the hangar at full throttle moments after leaving Charlotte-Douglas International Airport for Greer, S.C., officials said. No one on the ground was injured.
Dee Addison, who works at an airport business 500 yards away, ran outside after hearing a boom.
“It was like a frenzy. People were running out of the (hangar),” she said. “At the time we didn’t know a plane had actually crashed. It didn’t even look like a plane. It was totally demolished.”
Heavy smoke poured from the wreckage for hours, so thick “you could taste it in your mouth,” Addison said. The US Airways hangar was scorched and battered.
The Beech 1900 twin-engine turboprop was carrying 19 passengers and two crew members. It took off to the south, then cut back toward the airport, airport director Jerry Orr said.
The pilot, Katie Leslie, contacted the tower to report an emergency, said Greg Martin, a Federal Aviation Administration spokesman. But the transmission was cut short and the emergency wasn’t identified, he said.
Investigators believed they had found the flight data recorder and were looking for the cockpit voice recorder, said John Goglia, a National Transportation Safety Board member. The FBI said there were no immediate indications of terrorism.
The weather at the airport was clear at the time, with winds of only 8 mph, said Rodney Hinson, a National Weather Service meteorologist.
The flight originated in Lynchburg, Va., and was bound for the Greenville-Spartanburg airport in Greer, only 80 miles away from Charlotte. Goglia said none of the passengers started their trip in Charlotte, though some may have boarded there after transferring from other flights.
Businessman Buddy Puckett of Greenville, S.C., was awaiting the arrival of a friend and client, Gary Gezzer of Fort Lauderdale, Fla. He sent a co-worker to the Greer airport to pick up Gezzer, only to learn he had been killed.
Puckett said he would fly to Florida to be with Gezzer’s family. “He was not only a client, he was also a very, very good friend,” Puckett said.
The plane, built in 1996, was operated by Mesa Air Lines under the US Airways Express name. It had flown 15,000 hours and performed 21,000 takeoffs and landings.
FAA records show the aircraft was involved in five in-flight incidents that the NTSB said could affect safe operations. In one incident, the right engine lost oil pressure in November 2000 and the crew had to shut it down. The plane landed safely and the engine was replaced.
The aircraft also reported 10 service difficulties, most of them minor. In November, the company reported a leaking fuel pump that was replaced. In May, a hydraulic power pack was replaced after the left main landing gear wouldn’t retract during takeoff.
The FAA has issued nearly two dozen airworthiness directives on the 1900-D since 1994, warning of problems that must be addressed if found in an aircraft.
A maintenance alert for twin-engine Beech 1900 turboprops issued in August said attachment bolts for the vertical stabilizer had been found loose on one plane. And a directive issued in November warned that screws could come loose and interfere with the horizontal stabilizer.
There have been eight fatal accidents involving Beech 1900s in 40 years, according to NTSB records. Three people were killed in the most recent crash of a Beech 1900C, in Eagleton, Ark., on Dec. 9.