PAYSON — A student pilot and his instructor died Wednesday afternoon when their small aircraft crashed into a residential driveway just yards away from a Payson elementary school that was still in session.
Witnesses said the plane appeared to stall just before it plunged towards the ground. They said the engine restarted about 75 yards above the ground and the pilot appeared to be trying to pull the plane out of the plunge, but it was too late.
Officals from Utah Valley University, which operated the single-engine plane as part of its aviation training program, identified those killed in the 1:08 p.m. crash as Jamie Bennee, a 34-year-old certified flight instructor, and David Whitney, a 25-year-old aviation student. Mario Markides, director of flight operations for UVU's aviation science department, confirmed the plane was used in the university's flight school, which operates out of the Provo Municipal Airport.
"The cause of the crash is still under investigation," said UVU President Matthew Holland in a prepared statement. "We do know that this is the first fatality involving a UVU aircraft in the long history of our aviation program. I know that we all join together in offering our deepest condolences to the family and acquaintances of those whose lives were cut short today as well as our friends in the aviation science department."
Witnesses who saw and heard the crash say it sounded like the engine stalled while it was about 1,000 yards up, then kicked on again.
"It just kept getting lower and lower and I'm saying to myself, 'Start back up! Start back up!' " said Art Colegrove. "It got about 75 yards above the ground when it kicked back on … and you could see he was trying to pull out of it. But it was just too late, just too low. At that point we heard the crunch and got right over here."
"I had seen the plane wobbling a bit, getting lower and lower and lower," said Salemon Habib. "I was just hoping it would find its place. Then all of a sudden I just saw it disappear. Then I knew it went down, and it was really sad."
Neighbor Jose Torres also heard the crash.
"I was actually sitting down watching TV and I heard it. I heard it hit and I walked outside. Pretty crazy to see that right here," he said.
Rick Nielsen, superintendent of the Nebo School District, said the crash did not affect school property. He said there were no downed power lines or safety issues, but classes at Wilson Elementary were dismissed at 2 p.m.
Julie Warren, director of elementary education for the school district, said the kids were kept inside, out of sight of the crash until school was released. Counselors will be available Thursday to help parents and teachers explain the accident to the children.
"We feel so heartbroken for the accident but fortunate that it was … not on school grounds," Warren said.
The plane came down next door to Asay Jex's home on 500 West. She said the plane crash "sounded like a Dumpster at the school being emptied."
But because she lives across from Wilson Elementary, she didn't think much of the noise until she heard the sirens.
That's when she stepped out and noticed the plane on her neighbor's lawn. The downed plane had missed the elementary school, nearby power lines, her house, her neighbor's house and even her neighbor's trees and truck.
Yet she said she didn't stay outside long because she didn't want her 2-year-old niece, whom she was babysitting, to see anything. Minutes later, police came to her door and told her to evacuate in case of a gas leak.
As they left, the toddler, who loves airplanes, kept repeating, "airplane crash, go down," Jex said.
"They said we're lucky it didn't hit our tree or house," she said. "Really lucky."
This is the second fatal crash involving personnel from the UVU program in a little over a year. On Oct. 21, 2009, flight instructor Benjamin Hill, 30, died when his plane crashed 760 feet short of a runway at the Provo airport, although he was not flying in a school capacity.
A preliminary National Transportation Safety Board report said investigators were looking at the fuel delivery system in that crash. No final report has been issued.
UVU spokesman Chris Taylor said the flight school has logged over 400,000 safe flying hours since 1987. The program has about 350 students in Orem and another 1,700 taking online courses from all across the country. Wednesday's accident was the first fatal accident involving a UVU aircraft in the aviation program's history, according to university officials. The aviation program has eight full-time faculty and another 52 adjunct flight instructors and averages about 30 flights per day.
Taylor said UVU's close-knit aviation community is in a "state of shock and mourning."
Investigators with the Federal Aviation Administration were on scene and National Transportation Safety Board investigators were expected to arrive Thursday.
Contributing: Jared Page, Alex Cabrero