20-year-old William Felten was the pilot of the plane which crashed in Ohio.
20-year-old William Felten was the pilot of the plane which crashed in Ohio. Facebook

An airplane has crashed and exploded in Cleveland, killing all four college students on board.

An eye witness said he ran towards the plane to help but it burst into flames as he approached, according to an AP report.

The four men killed were students at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, and three of them were members of the varsity wrestling team, school officials said on Tuesday.

The wrestlers were identified as 20-year-old Lucas Marcelli of Massillon, Ohio, 18-year-old Abraham Pishevar of Rockville, Maryland, and 18-year-old John Hill of St. Simons, Georgia. The fourth student was the 20-year-old pilot, William Felten of Saginaw, Michigan.

The Ohio State Highway Patrol said the plane had been rented by Felten for four hours, but no flight plan was filed.

The plane crashed in Willoughby Hills shortly after taking off from the Cuyahoga County Regional Airport on Monday. An explosion followed and the four men were trapped inside the wreckage.

The Federal Aviation Administration and the National Transportation Safety Board will be investigating the crash.

William Honaker told Northeast Ohio Media Group that he was driving nearby when he saw a "ball of light" and realised it was a plane on fire.

Honaker said he also tried to approach the aircraft, but was warned off because the fire was too fierce.

"(The plane) was so mangled," Honaker said. "I didn't want to look at it anymore, to be honest."

The father of one of the four college students killed when their plane crashed says the boys were apparently just taking a late-night flight to see the city.

Bryan Marcelli said his son Lucas was a hard-working student but not a risk taker.

University President Barbara Snyder said in a statement that the school would be working closely with the four boys' roommates and friends.

"We are truly heartbroken about these promising lives cut short," Snyder said.