WEST JORDAN — The pilot of an experimental aircraft that crashed into a soccer field shortly after takeoff Tuesday has died from his injuries.
West Jordan police announced Wednesday morning that both the pilot and passenger in the plane had now died.
Killed were the pilot, Jared Despain, 28, from Nephi, and Brent Simmons, 40, of Manti.
Police say the fiberglass, experimental plane had taken off from South Valley Regional Airport at about 1:20 p.m. Witnesses say it struggled to gain altitude and crashed into the West Jordan Soccer Complex at 4400 West and 7800 South.
One of the occupants died before he could be transported to an area hospital, said West Jordan Police Sgt. Drew Sanders. The other man, the pilot of the small plane, was rushed to a hospital in an ambulance in extremely critical condition.
Dan McCullough owns a shop just adjacent to the soccer field where the plane went down. A fellow pilot, McCullough said he often watches planes take off and land, and this one was no different.
But almost immediately, he knew something was wrong.
"It was surreal because I knew it was going to happen," McCullough said. "He did not have full power, he was struggling."
He said the plane even sounded weak causing McCullough to encourage the pilot: "Drop your nose, buddy. Drop your nose."
The pilot attempted to do so, but eventually, when he was about 50 feet above the ground and started to turn, the plane stalled, and the right, lower wing caught the ground. The plane landed cockpit down.
"He didn't have a chance," McCullough said of the pilot once the plane stalled.
McCullough and a few others went to help and could see the two men were in bad shape.
"I was trying to think of what I could do to make it better," McCullough said. "The aviation community is a tight-knit community. No one wants to see anybody get hurt. No one wants to see an airplane go down."
Police and fire officials are investigating the cause of the crash.
The plane is the second to crash near South Valley Regional Airport in less than three weeks, bringing to the forefront ongoing concerns about the airport's safety and future.
"Despite today's events and the other recent accident, it has a very strong safety record. It has been a very safe airport," said Barbara Gann, spokeswoman for the Salt Lake City International Airport, which also manages the regional airport.
On Sept. 15, a small plane crashed on the grounds of Columbia Elementary School, killing the 60-year-old pilot. Children were outside at recess when the plane went down next to the east side of the school at 3505 W. 7800 South.
"We've been very fortunate with both of these crashes that no one was injured on the ground," West Jordan Mayor Melissa Johnson said.
Had the accident happened on a Saturday, when the soccer fields are packed with soccer-playing kids and their parent spectators, the crash "would have had the potential to injure dozens of people," Johnson said.
Following a pair of plane crashes in summer 2010, West Jordan officials talked about wanting to see the airport closed, saying it poses a safety concern to residents.
Safety at the airport, Johnson says, "is an ongoing concern."
"We've been there over 70 years and as the population has moved south in the area, and as the area has built up, these concerns do rise occasionally," Gann said.
But West Jordan is limited in how it can address those concerns. The roughly 900-acre airport is owned and operated by Salt Lake City, and any changes to approve safety would have to be made by Salt Lake.
West Jordan city leaders would like to see an air traffic control tower built at South Valley Regional to improve safety, but that would require expansion of the airport to accommodate 100,000 operations per year in order to receive federal funding. The airport currently attracts about 80,000 operations per year.
Johnson said talks with Salt Lake City officials about the airport's future are ongoing.
Any decision regarding the airport, however, would have to be made by the federal government and Gann said, "even though this is a small airport in West Jordan, it plays a key role in the national aviation system. It's a reliever airport to Salt Lake City International and it's a valuable asset to us."
West Jordan officials are hoping Salt Lake City will either expand the airport or develop it so it at least becomes an economic driver in the city to offset the drain on taxpayer dollars when crews have to respond to emergencies.
"It's a case now of looking at different things that can be done with the airport to create something that gives us more economic benefit than we've had in the past," Johnson said.
Contributing: Alex Cabrero