SALT LAKE CITY — Matt Wagstaff joined the military to fly helicopters.
"That was his love. That was his passion. He wanted to be a pilot. The Army allowed him to do that," said family friend Kelvin Brock.
It was while flying that Chief Warrant Officer Matthew G. Wagstaff died when his Blackhawk helicopter went down Tuesday in southern Afghanistan as part of Operation Enduring Freedom.
The 34-year-old Orem High School graduate was among nine service members, including five with the 101st Airborne, killed in the crash near the town of Qatal in Zabul province, according to Fort Campbell spokesman Rick Rzepka. The 101st Airborne is stationed at the Kentucky base. The soldiers were aboard an International Security Assistance Force helicopter, he said. The Taliban controls much of the territory in the area, and coalition forces recently stepped up efforts to push it out.
The cause of Tuesday's crash was not immediately known. It was the deadliest since May 2006, when a Chinook helicopter crashed while attempting a nighttime landing on a small mountaintop in eastern Kunar province, killing 10 U.S. soldiers.
"Matt died doing what he loved to do — and that was to fly," said a statement from the Wagstaff family. "He was a tremendous husband, son, brother and uncle, and he served his country well."
Assigned to the 101st Combat Aviation Brigade, Wagstaff was a 10-year Army veteran on his second tour of duty in Afghanistan. He had also done a stint in Iraq.
"I truly believe Matt felt like he was making a difference," Brock said, adding his missions included bringing injured soldiers out of combat zones.
Wagstaff was still a newlywed when he died. He met his wife, Tiffany, at Fort Campbell, and they married in January. He deployed to Afghanistan in March. He was due home on leave next month.
"Obviously, she is devastated," Brock said.
Wagstaff's wife and parents, Ronald and Suzanne Wagstaff, flew to Dover Air Force base in Delaware to receive his body Wednesday morning. Funeral services are pending.
Brock described Wagstaff as a big guy who played football in high school. "Matt was big in stature, but he wasn't boisterous," he said.
Wagstaff, who has as younger brother and sister, joined the Army after graduating from Utah State University. He had recently re-enlisted, knowing he would be going to Afghanistan, Brock said.
He was one of several pilots who flew Blackhawk helicopters in the original "Transformers" movie in 2007. Much of the action was through alleys in Los Angeles, where they also flew over Dodger Stadium and hovered over rooftops. The helicopters took off and landed in an abandoned Sears parking lot. Brock called it a "fun factoid" that Wagstaff liked to share with people.
A neighbor in Wagstaff's parents' Orem neighborhood said he will be missed in his hometown.
"He was just such a good kid. There was never a problem with him," Ilene Larson said. "When he went in the military, he was doing what he loved to do."
Gov. Gary Herbert extended condolences to the family.
"This young man placed service above self as he sought to bring peace and stability to a troubled land," he said.13 comments on this story
News of Wagstaff's death comes less than a week after Army Sgt. Aaron Kramer of Cottonwood Heights was killed in Kandahar, Afghanistan, on Sept. 16.
"We mourn the loss of these two Utah servicemen. Our thoughts, prayers and gratitude are with the families of Sgt. Kramer and Chief Warrant Officer Wagstaff."
Funeral services for Kramer are scheduled for Saturday.
Herbert has directed that flags throughout the state fly at half-staff from sunrise to sunset that day in his honor.