The Cessna 172 was heading north on the runway early Friday evening the Knox County Regional Airport when it struck a pickup truck that was crossing the runway, authorities said. The plane continued to climb and as it turned to the east, it spiraled downward about 200 to 300 yards into the woods and immediately burst into flames, according to the Knox County sheriff's office.
With flames shooting 10 to 20 feet in the air and smoke billowing into the sky, the first people to the scene tried unsuccessfully to pull one of the occupants from the burning wreckage, said John Newcomb, president of the Downeast Air airline services company, who was among those who tried to help.
The four-seat plane was destroyed by flames, so there was no way to see its identifying number, airport manager Jeff Northgraves said, adding that officials were "fairly sure" it was not a local aircraft.
The victims were one Mainer and two people from out of state, Knox County Chief Deputy Sheriff Tim Carroll said. He said authorities were working to notify relatives before announcing the victims' names.
Investigators from the Federal Aviation Administration arrived Saturday and officials from the National Transportation Safety Board were due to arrive Saturday afternoon.
Officials said the truck was authorized to be on the airport grounds and was driven by a pilot who was picking up a pilot who had parked another plane in a hangar.
All trucks at the airport are equipped with radios to pick up any traffic from planes, Northgraves said. He said planes are required to radio their positions before, during and after takeoff. He said it wasn't known yet whether the plane that crashed had radioed its actions.
The flames were hot enough to pop the airplane's tires and to keep would-be rescuers away from the airplane, Newcomb said. Firefighters had to carry fire extinguishers to the scene of the crash because they could not get their trucks close enough.
An investigator from the Federal Aviation Administration arrived at the crash site Friday night, Northgraves said. National Transportation Safety Board officers were expected to arrive Saturday to join in the investigation.
The airport has two commercial carriers, but the plane that crashed was believed to be privately owned, officials said. The skies were clear at the time with light winds, according to the National Weather Service said.
The airport was the site of the deadliest commercial airplane crash in Maine history. More than a dozen passengers and two pilots were killed in 1979 when a de Havilland Twin Otter turboprop crashed short of the runway in foggy weather. There was only one survivor, a 16-year-old boy.