An in-flight fire was the probable cause of an airplane crash that killed four Kentucky residents in 2011, but federal investigators said they were not able to determine the origin of the fire because of extensive damage to the plane.
The fire apparently spread quickly; less than a minute passed between when the pilot reported the blaze and the plane disappeared from radar, according to a report from the National Transportation Safety Board released this week.
All four people aboard the twin-engine Beech 58 plane died when the plane crashed in steep, rugged terrain near Murphy, N.C., in the western tip of the state, not far from Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
Those on the plane were the pilot, Matthew Shuey, 27; Tiffany Maggard, 23; Kassie Lynn Robinson, 22; and Miranda Morgan, 20.
The three women, all originally from Knott County, had been out of state to visit a friend. Shuey was flying them back to Kentucky when the crash occurred.
Shuey grew up in Nicholasville but worked for a flying service based at the Hazard airport. The plane, a 1976 model, was registered to Aero Resources Corp. and was operated by Friendship Flying Service Inc., according to the NTSB report.
The report said that Shuey and his passengers left the Atlanta airport and were cruising toward home in level flight at an altitude of 9,000 feet when Shuey called the control tower at the Knoxville, Tenn., airport and declared an emergency because of a fire on board.
The air-traffic controller radioed back to as whether Shuey planned to land in Knoxville, but Shuey didn't respond.
The last radar recognition of the plane was 39 seconds after Shuey's call to the tower, according to the NTSB report.
Witnesses reported seeing the plane make a sharp turn to the right before the crash. The four people on board died on impact.
The radio and radar traffic suggests that the fire grew quickly — an indication that the blaze was fed by fuel, the report said.
The damage pattern indicated that the fire most likely occurred under the right side of the instrument panel, in an area near direct-read oil pressure gauges, the report said.
However, the exact source of the fire could not be pinpointed because there was an extensive fire after the plane crashed, and investigators could not distinguish between the fire damage from before and after the crash.
A person who worked where the plane was based gave the NTSB a video, taken before the crash, that appeared to show fuel leaks from the plane, according to the agency's report.
The person who took the video told another operator of the plane about it but was told the plane had just gone through maintenance and "discounted the information about the fuel leak," the report said.
The report did not say the apparent leaks observed in the video caused the fire.
Bill Estep: (606) 678-4655. Twitter: @billestep1.