LAKELAND - A small plane crashed after takeoff and erupted into flames, killing both occupants, at Lakeland Linder Regional Airport Friday afternoon.
The twin-engine Cessna 337P Skymaster was engulfed in flames when firefighters and rescuers arrived about 10 minutes after a 3:37 p.m. call, Lakeland Fire Department spokeswoman Cheryl Edwards said.
The pilot was Lakeland flight instructor Don Palas, said the plane's owner, Danny Ferrer. Ferrer said he purchased the plane recently and hired Palas, a former Marine with 15,000 hours of flying experience, as chief pilot for a flight school he was starting.
The passenger's identity was not available Friday night. Lakeland police said both bodies were so badly burned that a medical examiner would need dental records to identify them positively, and their names would not be released officially until today.
Witnesses said the plane took off, climbed steeply to between 100 and 150 feet and then seemed to fall straight to the ground, bursting quickly into flames.
After hearing the crash, John Troutner said, he raced to the plane and tried to open the cockpit door.
The fire, which had engulfed the cockpit and the left side of the plane, scorched his hand and he had to give up.
Ferrer said he bought the 1976 model plane last month and it was flown from California to Lakeland Wednesday. He said his mechanic inspected it and discovered a small oil leak, which Ferrer described as insignificant.
The National Transportation Safety Board was to begin an investigation today.