By Verna Gates
BIRMINGHAM, Alabama (Reuters) - A large UPS cargo plane crashed and burst into flames, killing its pilot and copilot as it lit up the predawn sky over Alabama on Wednesday.
The cause of the latest aircraft accident in the United States was not immediately known and authorities were not releasing the identities of the two crew members killed.
The plane, an Airbus A300, clipped trees and nearly hit a house before plowing across about 200 yards (meters) of an empty field short of the runway, a senior official with the National Transportation Safety Board said.
Pictures from the scene showed the partially crumpled nose section of the aircraft still largely intact, emblazoned with the words Worldwide Services. But it was completely severed from the body of the aircraft and surrounded by debris, including UPS packages from the belly of the cargo hauler.
The NTSB official, Robert Sumwalt, said investigators had still not been able to retrieve the A300's cockpit voice and flight data recorders, about 12 hours after the crash occurred, because fire crews were still dousing the wreckage.
"The tail section of the aircraft is still smoldering, still smoking," Sumwalt told reporters.
The tail and wing sections ended up about 75 to 80 yards ahead of the cockpit, he added.
United Parcel Service Inc flight 1354, which took off from Louisville, Kentucky, was on approach to the airport in Birmingham when it crashed at about 5 a.m. CDT (1000 GMT), according to the Federal Aviation Administration.
One of the doomed crew members was identified as 37-year-old Shanda Fanning of Lynchburg, Tennessee, according to her local sheriff's office.
A 26-member NTSB response team from Washington is leading the investigation into the crash, Sumwalt said. UPS has not yet disclosed the nature of the cargo.
No distress calls were made to the airport tower, according to April Odom, a spokeswoman for Birmingham Mayor William Bell.
"It sounded like a transformer that blowed up," said Odell Rich, a fruit vendor who said he witnessed the crash. "There was a big explosion that lit up the sky. It jarred the earth. It looked to me like it hit a power line and plowed into the ground."
An intense fire erupted after the crash but it was quickly brought under control, Bell said. "It was quite a large fire and there were two to three explosions after the plane caught fire, after the crash itself," he said.
Pedro Torres, who lives about two blocks from the crash site, saw "a big flash" from the window of his home when the plane went down. He said the crash was preceded by the sound of what he described as "a backfire" and the noise of an engine with an open throttle.
"My house shuddered like an earthquake. I saw a big airplane on the ground, scattered everywhere with lots of smoke," he said.
A field of debris could be seen around the crash site in an area of Birmingham where many homes have been bulldozed to make way for an airport expansion.
UPS, the world's largest package delivery service, declined to immediately comment on reports that the A300 involved in the crash had a record of previous mechanical and structural issues, some of which caused emergencies to be declared during flight.
A FAA database showed that the "service difficulty" issues, which date back to 2006, included a problem with an air data computer and a malfunction of the plane's flap system.
The Airbus A300 is a wide-body jet widely used as a regional freighter by UPS, FedEx Corp and others.
Airbus said it will provide technical assistance to accident investigators. It said the aircraft involved was delivered to UPS from its production line in 2003, and had accumulated about 11,000 flight hours over about 6,800 flights.
The model has been involved in about 10 crashes, the latest occurring last November, when the front landing gear on a DHL-owned jet collapsed on landing in Bratislava, Slovakia. The model has been in service since 1974.
The Birmingham crash is the latest in a string of air accidents in the United States in recent months.
In July, an Asiana Airlines Boeing 777 crashed while landing in San Francisco, killing three people and injuring more than 180.
Also last month, the front landing gear of a Southwest Airlines Co Boeing 737 jet collapsed on touchdown at New York City's LaGuardia Airport, injuring eight.
In May, a U.S. Airways flight made a belly landing at Newark International Airport in New Jersey after its landing gear failed to deploy. No one was injured.
(Additional reporting by Chris Francescani, Scott Malone, Tom Brown, Elena Berton, Patricia Kranz and Susan Heavey; Writing by Tom Brown; Editing by David Adams and Lisa Shumaker)