WARREN, Mich. (AP) _ A cargo plane flying erratically dove into a residential area, struck a garage and a house and exploded early today, killing a couple in the house and the pilot, officials said.

The couple's three children, who were sleeping in an upstairs bedroom, were unhurt and were led to safety by neighbors, said Herbert Kauffman, assistant police chief for this Detroit suburb.

The twin-engine Beechcraft plane had just taken off from Detroit City Airport, not the city's main airport, about 12:30 a.m. when it went into a nosedive and struck a garage, propelling a van into the first-floor bedroom of the house next door before crashing into that house and bursting into flames, said police Lt. Orba Underwood.

''There are parts of the aircraft and car inside the bedroom,'' Underwood said.

''The plane was seen faltering in the air by two Warren scout cars, and they were literally on the scene immediately after impact,'' Mayor Ron Bonkowski said. ''They thought at first he might have hit the school playground on the other street. You look another 60 feet, and he'd have been in the street.''

Kauffman said police officers Craig Garwood and Alex Sywak saw the airplane shortly before it crashed.

''The aircraft appeared to be flying lower than normal and was ascending and descending erratically.'' Kauffman said, quoting a report by the officers. ''It disappeared out of sight, and seconds later they saw a fire flash.''

Kauffman identified the victims as Norma and Harold Richardson, both 29. Their neighbor whose garage was struck was unharmed, but her house was damaged by flames.

The airplane, loaded with automobile axles, was flying from Detroit to Fort Wayne, Ind., Kauffman said. It crashed about five miles northwest of City Airport, which is northeast of downtown Detroit. The pilot, Thomas Bussard of Pontiac, was the only person aboard.

Kauffman said officials at Lafayette Aviation at the Oakland-Pontiac Airport confirmed the airplane was theirs. A man who did not identify himself answered the telephone at the company and declined comment.

It took firefighters about 45 minutes to put out the blaze that engulfed the two-story house and damaged the one-story house and garage next door in this Macomb County community, Bonkowski said.

Doug Stockel ran across the street and was met at the front door by another neighbor, who kicked down the front door.

''The kids were already downstairs screaming. He took the kids out, I checked the upstairs. Somebody had to go upstairs to make sure there was nobody up there,'' Stockel said.

''As I'm thinking about it, with the gas mains in back, that house could have exploded right there. We could have opened that front door and the flames could have nailed us,'' Stockel said. ''The thing is, that was only done on an impulse.''

The children - Randi, 9; Erin, 5, and Debra, 4 - were taken to grandparents in Warren.

Don Hunt said he was in his house two doors away from the victims' home when he heard the explosion.

''We were just getting ready for bed,'' he said. ''One minute I hear a real loud roar coming in like a low-flying plane and then real fast ... this is too loud, this is too low. And crash and flames and everything. So you could tell right away it was a plane.

''At first I thought it could have been a helicopter going by, like a police helicopter, but then it was the wrong kind of sound. It was coming in too fast, like something dropping fast.''

Kauffman said the area surrounding the crash site was sealed off and officials from the Federal Aviation Administration and the National Transportation Safety Board were at the scene investigating.