The commuter airplane that crashed Friday night near Raleigh, N.C., killing 12 people, belonged to a financially ailing airline that had resumed flying just 16 days earlier after filing for bankruptcy in January.

AVAir Inc., which operates as American Eagle, the commuter line feeding American Airlines at its hub at the Raleigh-Durham Airport, suspended service Jan. 14 and filed for reorganization under Chapter 11, according to Larry Rednour, a spokesman for the Raleigh-based company.

AVAir received permission from federal bankruptcy court to restart operations Jan. 29 and, on Feb. 3, its fleet of 15 Swearingen Metro III's resumed flying, Rednour said.

On Friday, American Eagle Flight 378 to Richmond had just taken off in heavy fog and drizzle when it crashed at 9:27 p.m. in a wooded area, killing all 12 on board.

The crash near Raleigh was one of three Friday that killed 18 people. Three bodies were recovered from the wreckage of a small plane that crashed in dense fog and driving rain near the Atlantic City, N.J., airport shortly after 10 p.m.

Earlier, three people were killed in Texas when a small private plane crashed onto a freeway access road after taking off from the El Paso International Airport in moderate snow and light fog. The plane apparently developed trouble with its landing gear and was trying to return to the airport when it crashed during the morning rush hour, a National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) spokesman said.

In Raleigh yesterday, NTSB investigators, accompanied by board member James Kolstad, sifted through the wreckage searching for clues that would determine the cause of the crash.

The plane, a 19-seat, twin-engine turboprop, was not equipped with "black boxes," as are larger aircraft, which would include a cockpit voice recorder and instruments that record the plane's altitude, compass heading, air speed, pitch and other information.

The Federal Aviation Administration recently issued new rules that will take effect in several months requiring that commuter planes be equipped with black boxes.

The NTSB investigators will attempt to reconstruct the accident from witness accounts, pilot experience, maintenance records, weather conditions and by studying the crash scene and wreckage. A source close to the investigation said the plane's wreckage path stretched 150 yards through a grove of pine trees southwest of a 10,000-foot runway.

Teresa Damiano, an airport spokesman, said the plane took off just after 9:25 p.m. from Runway 23 Right. She said the plane made a right turn to the west, a normal procedure, and went down about 3,000 feet from the runway near the bank of a drainage reservoir known as Briar Creek.

According to the airline, both the captain and copilot lived in the Raleigh area and were making their first flight of the day. The captain, Walter Cole, 38, was hired by the company June 10, 1985 and had just over 3,400 hours flying experience, with 1,800 in that type of aircraft, Rednour said. Cole completed a required six-month proficiency check the day before the crash, an airline spokesman said.

The copilot, Kathy Digan, 27, had more than 2,000 hours flying experience, with 330 hours in that model. Digan was hired by the airline last May, Rednour said.

The two were scheduled to fly the 8:40 p.m. flight to Richmond and make an overnight stop there.

Officials said six passengers killed in the crash were from Richmond. They were identified as Terry Bower, Mike Grindle, John Oliver, Dick Ross, Marsha Ferris and Henry Lewis. Other passengers killed were identified as Chris Wells of Raleigh; Glenn and Libby Bogitsh of Nashville, and Roger Wilcox of Florida.

The aircraft was purchased new by the company in December 1985 and had flown 4,200 hours, Rednour said. He said the aircraft was inspected Monday.

The plane had been flown the previous day by another crew who reported no problems to the company, Rednour said. Just before the flight to Richmond, the plane had flown from Raleigh to Knoxville, Tenn., and back.

The crash was the second in the airline's eight-year history. In December, an American Eagle plane crashed just short of a runway at Dulles International Airport. No one was injured.

Staff writer Dave Sell contributed to this report from Raleigh.