WICHITA — A small plane lost power after takeoff and crashed into a flight-training building while trying to return to a Kansas airport Thursday, killing four people, injuring five others and igniting a fire that sent up towering plumes of black smoke that could be seen for miles around Wichita, officials and witnesses said.
Three of the dead were inside the building when the plane crashed into it at the city’s Mid-Continent Airport, and the fourth was found on the roof and is believed to be the pilot, Wichita Fire Chief Ronald Blackwell said Thursday afternoon.
Five others were injured in the crash, and one was in serious condition at a hospital, Blackwell said. Officials said that only one person was on board the plane and that everyone who was in the building had been accounted for. Identities of the victims were not immediately released.
“We understand that this is a very difficult time, especially for folks who have family members who are working out here and they don’t know,” Wichita Fire Marshal Brad Crisp said.
The plane, identified as a twin-engine Beechcraft King Air, crashed into a building that FlightSafety International uses to train pilots to fly Cessna planes, company spokesman Steve Phillips said. The FAA said it crashed after losing engine power and trying to return to the airport.
It appeared to strike the top of the building and ignite what Blackwell described as a “horrific” fire.
Jeff Papacek, 39, of Wichita, said he saw a “giant fireball” as he was heading to his engineering job at Learjet, which has a testing facility at the airport. He said he didn’t see the crash because there were too many buildings in the way, but he said the plane caught his attention beforehand.
“We are used to planes flying straight with the runway and this plane just didn’t look like it was lined up and was way too low for the direction it was going,” Papacek said, adding that he drove to the crash site to see what was happening and saw the building fire raging.
The crash did not appear to be significantly disrupting passenger traffic at the airport as planes could be seen taking off from other runways.
Located several miles west of downtown Wichita, a longtime aircraft manufacturing hub, Wichita Mid-Continent is used by private aircraft and served by several airlines and their regional affiliates, including American, Southwest, Delta, United and Allegiant. It saw more than 13,000 departures and about 1.4 million passengers last year, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation.
The crash is the latest in a string of incidents at the airport. In December, an avionics technician was arrested after a months-long undercover sting when he allegedly tried to drive a van filled with inert explosives onto the tarmac in a plot prosecutors say was intended to kill as many people as possible. Then in January, an Oklahoma man rammed his pickup truck through a security gate at the airport. In September, the airport conducted a large-scale disaster exercise featuring the mock crash of a 737 aircraft.
FBI spokeswoman Bridget Patton said it is “too early to rule anything out” about the cause of Thursday’s crash and confirmed the FBI is assisting in the investigation, but stressed the agency’s protocol is to respond to “any and all plane crashes at airports.”
ROXANA HEGEMAN, Associated Press
Reporters Heather Hollingsworth, Margaret Stafford and Greg Moore in Kansas City, Mo., contributed to this story.