BUTTE, Mont. – A small plane — possibly carrying children on a ski trip — crashed Sunday as it approached the Butte airport, killing 14 to 17 people aboard, a federal official said. The single engine turboprop nose-dived into a cemetery 500 feet from its destination.
The aircraft crashed and burned while attempting to land, said Federal Aviation Administration spokesman Mike Fergus. The plane crashed in Holy Cross Cemetery.
An investigator with the National Transportation Safety Board offered few details at a press conference in Butte Sunday night. No cause of the crash was given.
“We are just beginning our investigation,” said Kristi Dunks. “We don’t have a lot of information at this time.
“Certain family members were contacted,” she said. “At this point, I don’t have an exact number.” Dunks would not say if there had been a distress call from the pilot. It was partly cloudy, the visibility was 10 miles and winds were blowing from the northwest around 10 mph at the time of the crash, according to hourly temperature information from the National Weather Service.
The aircraft had departed from Oroville, Calif., and the pilot had filed a flight plan showing a destination of Bozeman, about 85 miles southeast of Butte. But the pilot canceled his flight plan at some point and headed for Butte, Fergus said.
Preliminary reports indicate the dead include numerous children, he said.
“We think that it was probably a ski trip for the kids,” Fergus said.
Butte Silver-Bow Sheriff John Walsh said there were a few people at the cemetery at the time of the crash, but no one on the ground was injured. He would not describe witness reports.
“I heard a loud bang,” said Nick Dipasquale, 19, who was working at a gas station across the street. “It sounded like someone ran into the building.”
He said he ran outside to see flames as tall as the trees.
Dipasquale said people who were fueling their cars said they saw the plane flying low, begin a turn, start to wobble and then slam into the ground.
Fergus said the Pilatus PC-12 aircraft was manufactured in 2001. Such planes are certified to carry 12 people.
The plane was registered to Eagle Cap Leasing Inc. in Enterprise, Ore., Fergus said. He didn’t know who was operating the plane.
I. Felkamp is listed in Oregon corporate records as Eagle Cap’s president. Attempts to reach him by phone were unsuccessful.
The flight originated at Brown Field Municipal airport in San Diego on Saturday evening and flew to Redlands, Calif., where it left Sunday morning for Vacaville, Calif., according to Flight Aware, a Web site that tracks air traffic. From there it flew to Oroville, Calif., and then to Butte. The NTSB could not confirm that information.
“We are still gathering the information of the aircraft, it’s purpose, what they were doing and where they were going,” Dunks said.
In California, Tom Hagler said he saw a group of about a dozen children and four adults Sunday morning at the Oroville Municipal Airport, about 70 miles north of Sacramento.
Hagler, owner of Table Mountain Aviation, described the children as ranging from about 6- to 10 year olds. He let the children into his building to use the restroom.
“There were a lot of kids in the group,” he said. “A lot of really cute kids.”
Hagler said he showed the pilot where he could fuel his plane, and the pilot said he expected his flight to take two-and-a-half hours. The pilot didn’t file a flight plan at the Oroville airport.
National Transportation Safety Board spokesman Keith Holloway said its investigators were expected to arrive in Butte late Sunday or early Monday.
The crash is the fourth major plane accident in the U.S. in slightly more than three months.
On Dec. 20, Continental Airlines plane veered off a runway and slid into a snowy field at Denver International Airport, injuring 37 people. No one was killed. In January, a US Airways jetliner landed in New York’s Hudson River after a flock of geese disabled both its engines. All 155 people onboard survived. Last month, commuter plane fell on a house in a suburb of Buffalo, N.Y., killing all 49 passengers and a man in the home.
Before the Buffalo crash there hadn’t been an accident involving a commercial airliner in the U.S. in which there were fatalities in more than two years.