It wasn't immediately clear how many bodies were in the wreckage of the four-seater Cessna 182, said Lexington County Sheriff's Capt. Mike Gordon. Three people were believed to have been on board.
The four-seat plane was about a mile from Columbia Metropolitan Airport when it was last seen around 11 p.m. Thursday, airport executive director Mike Flack said.
Dozens of sheriff's deputies and emergency workers on foot and on four-wheelers scoured two square miles of woods west of the airport. A helicopter with a spotlight and heat-sensing equipment finally located the wreckage shortly before dawn, Maj. John Allard said.
The plane's pilot had planned to land at Owens Field, a smaller airport near downtown Columbia, but diverted to the city's commercial airport about seven miles away because of fog, Gordon said.
He said witnesses in a neighborhood near the airport said they heard a sputtering engine, then heard what sounded like a plane crashing into trees and saw flames.
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The plane was built in 1976 and registered to Four Seasons LLC of Wilmington, Del., according to the Federal Aviation Administration. It had taken off from the Newport News-Williamsburg International Airport in Virginia around 8:30 p.m. Thursday, according to flightaware.com, a flight-tracking Web site.