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UPS cargo plane crash: Could mechanical or cargo problems be to blame?

The NTSB has sent a 26-person team to investigate Wednesday's UPS cargo plane crash. On Thursday, the onboard flight-data and cockpit-voice recorders were retrieved from the tail of the plane.

By Chelsea B. SheasleyCorrespondent / August 15, 2013

An investigator looks through debris of a UPS A300 cargo plane after it crashed on approach at Birmingham-Shuttlesworth International Airport in Birmingham, Ala., on Wednesday. The two pilots were killed.

Hal Yeager/AP

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The investigation into the fiery early-morning crash of a United Parcel Service cargo plane just outside the Birmingham, Ala., airport Wednesday is expected to focus on whether the crash was due to mechanical failure, pilot error, or cargo problems, analysts say.

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Chelsea Sheasley is the Monitor's Asia Editor, overseeing regional coverage for CSMonitor.com and the weekly magazine.

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The National Transportation Safety Board sent a 26-person team to the site Wednesday after the Airbus A300 owned by UPS crashed upon approach at about 5 a.m., Central time, killing the two co-pilots and nearly hitting nearby houses.

Despite the large investigation team – industry experts told The Wall Street Journal that the NTSB sent an unusually large group for a cargo crash – information about the accident is scant. However, on Thursday, the onboard flight-data and cockpit-voice recorders were retrieved from the tail of the plane.

“We are just at the very, very beginning stages,” NTSB board member Robert Sumwalt said Wednesday. “Our goal is to find out not just what happened but, more importantly, why it happened so we can keep it from happening again.”

What’s known so far, according to Birmingham Mayor William Bell, is that the plane issued no distress calls before the crash, and no one on the ground was hurt.

The plane hit the ground in a field about half a mile from a north runway at the airport and split in two upon impact, C.W. Mardis, a battalion chief and fire marshal for the Birmingham Fire and Rescue Service, told The New York Times

Firefighters spent about an hour and a half extinguishing a fire in the tail of the plane, and there were at least two explosions after the crash, Mr. Mardis said.

The crash occurred in a grassy area that had been a residential neighborhood before airport officials began buying the land to clear the area near the runway, according to the Associated Press.

Nearby residents have reportedly long worried about a plane crash in the hilly neighborhood that surrounds the Birmingham airport.

Barbara Benson, a resident whose home was nearly clipped by the UPS plane Wednesday, says planes routinely fly close to her home. 

“Sometimes the planes come so close that I wave at the pilots," she told Alabama.com.

The plane, which had been en route from Louisville, Ky., was making a routine package delivery. It is the second fatal airline incident for UPS.

"This incident is very unfortunate, and our thoughts and prayers are with those involved," said Mitch Nichols, president of UPS's air operation, in a written statement. 

Industry analysts have pointed to the possibility of a problem with the cargo, since the previous UPS crash, just outside Dubai in the United Arab Emirates, was blamed on a fire from the 80,000 to 90,000 lithium batteries on board the plane.

Lithium batteries are heat sensitive. But "independent safety experts who have reviewed images of the crash – plus one industry official close to the probe – said they detected no early signs that cargo issues had anything to do with [Wednesday's] accident," The Wall Street Journal reports.

Another possibility that investigators will be looking at is mechanical failure. According to data from the Federal Aviation Administration, the plane that crashed this week had six prior “service difficulties” reported. The most recent was in May 2012, when "the aircraft’s air data computer failed during a flight and an emergency was declared," the Louisville Courier-Journal reports. "The computer, which was listed as inoperative, was replaced and the plane returned to service, FAA data shows.” 

The names of the co-pilots have not been officially released. One has been identified by family to the news media as Shanda Fanning of Lynchburg, Tenn.

Weather conditions at the time were rainy with low clouds, The Courier-Journal reports.

Airbus issued a statement that said it delivered the aircraft to UPS in 2003 and the plane had accumulated about 11,000 flight hours during about 6,800 flights. The A300, Airbus's first plane, began flying in 1972. Airbus stopped making them in 2007, after producing a total of 816 A300s and A310s. The model was retired from US passenger service in 2009, according to the Associated Press.

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