8 die in Ausralian Ghost Plane Crash



BRISBANE (Reuters) - Eight people were killed on Tuesday when a light plane crashed in Australia's remote northeast after flying 3,000 km (1,900 miles) across the continent on apparent autopilot.

The plane set out with seven miners on a short flight from Perth to the gold mining town of Leonora, both in Western Australia, but authorities believe the plane depressurized, leaving the pilot and miners unconscious.

Two aircraft tracked the Beechcraft King Air 200 twin-engine turboprop from near Alice Springs in central Australia before it crashed at about 2:10 a.m. (1510 GMT) on a property near Bourketown, in far northern Queensland state, authorities said.

The plane did not respond to radio contact and traveled northeast across the vast outback, flying virtually in a straight line across three states before running out of fuel and crashing.

Sons of Gwalia Ltd, one of Australia's largest gold producers, said seven of its employees who worked at Leonora were on the charter flight.

``It has been confirmed that there were no survivors,'' company chairman Peter Lalor said in a statement.

Initial local media reports said the Beechcraft was in the air for five to seven hours.

``It would appear as though the airplane was on autopilot, certainly on heading hold and it would have maintained a constant heading until the aircraft ran out of fuel, at least on one engine anyway,'' said Barry Sargeant from the Australian Transport Safety Bureau.

``It's consistent with some sort of a problem with the cabin pressurization system or oxygen system, (but) that's yet to be determined of course,'' he told Australian Broadcasting Corp (ABC) radio.

A Queensland police spokesman said fog had prevented investigators from getting near the remote crash site during the morning.

``A helicopter was going to be used to ferry people into the crash site but due to the weather... it appears we may not be able to use that now,'' police spokesman Brian Swift told ABC.

Pilot Steve Patrick of the Royal Flying Doctor Service, who tracked the wayward Beechcraft over the outback for more than an hour until it crashed, said it was flying at 25,000 feet with no life evident on board.

``The plane was slowly descending the whole way and then it descended into the ground,'' he told the ABC. ``There was an explosion on impact, then there was a fire straight after.''

Australian officials likened the tragedy to the jet crash which killed golf champion Payne Stewart in the United States in October last year.

Stewart and five others died after their Lear 35 twin-engine jet flew for hours across the U.S. with no one at the controls, finally crashing in South Dakota after running out of fuel.


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