People living near the airfield reported seeing flames coming from the aircraft and hearing its engines struggle in the final moments before impact.
"It was on fire before it hit," said Jerome Sanders, who lives directly across from the runway.
The plane, an A300 that had departed from Louisville, Ky., went down around daybreak about a half-mile from Birmingham-Shuttlesworth Airport. It broke into several pieces and caught fire. The pilot and co-pilot were the only people aboard.
Weather conditions at the time were rainy with low clouds.
Toni Herrera-Bast, a spokeswoman for the city's airport authority, said the crash did not affect airport operations, but it knocked down power lines.
The National Transportation Safety Board sent a team of investigators to the scene.
A preliminary investigation indicated the pilots did not make any distress calls, board member Robert L. Sumwalt said.
Investigators were waiting to retrieve the cockpit-voice and flight-data recorders because the tail of the aircraft was still smoldering, Sumwalt said.
UPS spokesman Jeff Wafford said the jet was carrying a variety of cargo. He did not elaborate.
The pilots' names were not immediately released. But a man who identified himself as a family member said one of the pilots was Shanda Fanning, a woman in her mid-30s from Lynchburg, Tenn.
Wes Fanning, who said he was the woman's brother-in-law, said Shanda Fanning had been flying since she was a teenager.
He said officials contacted her mother and that UPS representatives were with the family.
Ryan Wimbleduff, who lives just across the street from the airport property, said the crash shook his house violently. Standing in his driveway, he and his mother could see the burning wreckage.
"I ran outside and it looked like the sun was coming up because of the fire on the hill," he said. "Balls of fire were rolling toward us."
Chunks of riveted metal that appeared to be from the plane landed in the yard of Cornelius and Barbara Benson, who also live near the crash site.
Barbara Benson said she was awakened by a tremendous boom and "saw a big red flash" through her bedroom window.
As day broke, the two were able to see that the tops of trees around their property had been knocked down and they were missing a piece of their back deck.
Cornelius Benson said planes routinely fly so low over his house that a few years ago, the airport authority sent crews to trim treetops.
The planes come close enough that Barbara Benson has sometimes been able to "to wave at the captains as they pass."
Sharon Wilson, who also lives near the airport, said she was in bed before dawn when she heard what sounded like engines sputtering as the plane went over her house.
James Giles said the plane missed his home by a couple of hundred yards, judging from tree damage and debris. He was at work at the time but said it was clear from the scene that the plane was attempting to land on the north-south runway that is typically used by much smaller aircraft. Large planes such as the A300 typically aim for the bigger east-west runway, he said.
"They were just trying to get to a landing spot, anywhere," he said.
The plane was built in 2003 and had logged about 11,000 flight hours over 6,800 flights, Airbus said in a news release.
The A300, Airbus' first plane, began flying in 1972. Airbus quit building them in 2007 after making a total of 816 A300 and A310s. The model was retired from U.S. passenger service in 2009.
Wednesday's crash comes nearly three years after another UPS cargo plane crashed in the United Arab Emirates, just outside Dubai. Both pilots were killed.
Authorities there blamed the Sept. 3, 2010, crash on the jet's load of 80,000 to 90,000 lithium batteries, which are sensitive to temperature. Investigators determined that a fire probably began in the cargo containing the batteries.
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