Pilot May Have Steered Plane Away From Crowded Highway in Missouri Plane Crash

A twin-engine plane with apparent mechanical problems plowed into a self-storage unit and burst into flames, killing all four people aboard but missing the bustling businesses along this resort town's main strip by only a few hundred feet.

Pilot Paul Johnson, 71, his wife and another couple, all vacationing from Lubbock, Texas, died in the fiery crash Monday after he radioed in to say he was trying to return to Taney County Airport.

The small Piper Seneca, its fuel tanks filled just before takeoff, exploded a safe distance from restaurants, motels, tourist attractions and lunchtime traffic that crowd two-lane Missouri 76.

"It would have been much worse if they had crashed in a population center," Branson Police Chief Caroll McCullough said.

Federal aviation investigators were to comb through the wreckage Tuesday and may be able to determine if Johnson deliberately steered the falling plane away from Branson's main strip.

Branson fire and police officials said there was no black box recorder on the small aircraft. But they said there may be indications of how the pilot acted in his radio traffic with a local airport when he reported mechanical troubles.

Mike Willett, manager of AAA Self Storage Inns, said the plane struck the corner of a building containing 32 units and quickly caught fire, destroying the building.

"The plane shook my house when it hit," said Willett, who lives on the property.

Both Willett and Terry Ware, office manager for a plumbing company that sits near the property, said they heard what sounded like gunfire after one of the explosions. Authorities said it was probably ammunition going off in one of the storage units.

The plane came down about 200 feet from the busy street, near a Ripley's Believe it or Not Museum, a pair of motels and a string of musical theaters bearing the names of such entertainers as Andy Williams and Bobby Vinton.

Skies in the area were overcast, but there were no storms or unusual weather at the time of the crash, the National Weather Service said.

The Federal Aviation Administration said the plane crashed about 12:30 p.m., about 15 minutes after taking off from Taney County Airport in Point Lookout, Mo.

In addition to Johnson, 71, a dentist, the other victims were identified as his wife, Marcia Johnson, 71; Betty Roach, 80; and her husband, Bill Roach, for whom no age was available.

Paul Johnson was an Abilene Christian University trustee and member of the school's Sports Hall of Fame, according to the Abilene Reporter-News.

"We are shocked and saddened at the news of the tragic loss of Dr. Paul and Marcia Johnson," ACU President Dr. Royce Money said in a statement. "Paul was an outstanding athlete throughout his entire life, and he was a tremendous ambassador, recruiter and trustee for his alma mater."