By Verna Gates
BIRMINGHAM, Alabama (Reuters) - U.S. government investigators looking into the crash of a UPS cargo plane said on Friday the pilots received a low altitude warning barely seven seconds before the sound of impact, according to data recovered from the cockpit voice recorder.
Investigators retrieved data from the cockpit and flight data recorders on Friday that could shed light on Wednesday's fiery crash in Alabama that killed the jet's pilot and co-pilot.
"I personally breathed a huge sigh of relief once I learned we had good data," said Robert Sumwalt, a senior official with the National Transportation Safety Board. "We'll know everything that was said in the cockpit."
Sumwalt said a preliminary review of the voice and data recorders showed the pilots received the first of two audible warnings before the sound of impact can be heard, indicating the United Parcel Service Inc cargo plane was descending at a hazardous rate.
A warning system in the air-traffic computers at Birminghan's airport showed no indications the plane was approaching too low, Sumwalt said.
The cockpit voice and flight recorders arrived at the NTSB's headquarters in Washington late on Thursday, hours after they were pulled from a heap of melted plastic and debris at the crash site.
Preliminary results from the agency's investigation, which is still in its early stages, have shown no evidence of engine fire, and the pilots did not issue a distress call.
The Airbus A300 jet was approaching the runway at Birmingham-Shuttlesworth airport before dawn when it clipped the trees in an adjacent residential area and crashed well short of the runway.
An air traffic controller on duty told NTSB investigators he saw a "bright spark flash" that looked like a powerline breaking, Sumwalt said. The controller saw the plane's landing lights "followed by a bright, orange flash ... and then a red glow."
The NTSB has sent investigators to Louisville, Kentucky, to study the A300's maintenance records, officials said.
UPS identified the crew members who died as 58-year-old Cerea Beal Jr., of Matthews, North Carolina, and Shanda Fanning, 37, of Lynchburg, Tennessee.
Beal, the captain, who was at the controls on Wednesday, had been with UPS since 1990, and before that he served more than six years in the U.S. Marine Corps as a helicopter operator.
The NTSB said he had about 8,600 hours total flying experience, including more than 3,200 hours in the Airbus A-300.
(Additional reporting by Jane Sutton and David Adams in Miami; Writing by Tom Brown and Kevin Gray; Editing by Toni Reinhold, Leslie Gevirtz and Ken Wills)