Atlas Air cargo plane crashes near Houston with three aboard

An Atlas Air cargo jet. (Bloomberg pic)

NEW YORK: An Atlas Air cargo plane with three people aboard crashed into a Texas bay on Saturday as it was preparing to land in Houston, the Federal Aviation Administration said.

The Boeing Co. 767-300, which had departed from Miami, lost radio contact about 48 kilometres from George Bush Intercontinental Airport in Houston, the agency said in a statement. The FAA cautioned that the count of people aboard the plane was still preliminary.

There were no signs of survivors, a local sheriff said.

The plane was nearing a line of thunderstorms in an area of turbulence when it went down, said a person familiar with the still-preliminary data being collected. The person wasn’t authorised to speak about the information. It was flying at about 5,800 feet altitude and there were no signs of trouble before it disappeared, the person said.

Photos and video of the scene show aircraft debris in a shallow, marshy bay. “Who knows what’s under the water that we can’t see, but it looks like total devastation from the aircraft part,” Chambers County Sheriff Brian Hawthorne said, according to Click2Houston.com. “Knowing what I saw, I don’t believe anybody could survive it.”

The flight tracking site FlightRadar24 said the plane was operating for Amazon.com Inc.’s Prime Air and posted a photo of the plane painted with Prime’s logo. New York-based Atlas Air said in November it delivered its 20th aircraft in 28 months to Amazon, according to Globe Newswire.

Atlas Air is a subsidiary of Atlas Air Worldwide Holdings Inc. Atlas specialises in leasing aircraft complete with pilots and maintenance to other companies. The holding company also operates Polar Air Cargo, Titan Aviation and Southern Air, according to its website.

While US passenger airlines are in the safest period in history, cargo carriers using similar aircraft haven’t had as good a record.

There’s been just one fatality on a US-registered passenger airline since Feb 12, 2009. During the same period, according to NTSB, four cargo jets have crashed, killing 13, not including Saturday’s accident.

The National Transportation Safety Board, which investigates aviation crashes, is sending a team to head the Texas investigation, it said in a tweet.

FAA investigators are also on their way to the accident site, spokesman Gregory Martin said by phone.

Weather radar at the time of the accident showed the plane was approaching a storm a few miles away, but it didn’t appear that the plane had entered the rain yet, FlightRadar24 said.

Before Saturday the most recent cargo jet crash occurred Aug 14, 2013, when a United Parcel Service Inc. plane hit a hill as it prepared to land in Birmingham, Alabama. Two pilots died in that incident.

Boeing said in a tweet that the company was “deeply saddened” to learn about the crash. “Boeing is prepared to provide technical assistance to the NTSB as it investigates the accident,” the company said.