Local search and rescue workers confirmed Saturday that three men died when their plane crashed north of Payson.
The plane reportedly hit a cliff face before tumbling into Calf Pen canyon north of Strawberry.
The men had been missing since Thursday when they took off from Mesa’s Falcon Field on a training mission. They indicated that they planned to land in Payson and Winslow before returning to Mesa.
When the 1999 single-engine Piper Archer didn’t come back, the flying academy in Mesa that owns the plane alerted officials.
Early Friday morning, Civil Air Patrol pilots searched for the plane near Fossil Creek Canyon, where radar and cell phone records last traced it.
Bill Hillman, commander of the local Civil Air Patrol, said despite flying over the canyon several times, crews saw no signs of the wreckage.
Finally, Friday evening, a pilot spotted what he thought was the wreckage in the upper end of Calf Pen. However, extreme high winds forced him to ground early, according to the Gila County Sheriff’s Office.
On Saturday, a Department of Public Safety helicopter confirmed it was the plane.
Without radar records, Hillman said he doesn’t think anyone would have found the aircraft.
“They wouldn’t have ever found that thing for 50 years,” he said. “We searched that exact spot and didn’t see anything.”
In fact, aerial photographs taken over the crash site show no signs of the wreckage, he said.
Tonto Rim Search and Rescue volunteers recovered three bodies at the site. They are believed to be that of flight instructor Taylor Bennell, 25, retired flight instructor Rob Van Heuvel, 68, and student-pilot Lucas Westenberg, 19, according to the Arizona Division of Emergency Management.
Aviation investigators have not yet released information on what caused the crash.
Bill Pitterle, TRSAR commander, said the remote, rocky canyon was quite a challenge to penetrate.
Rescuers entered from the rim of the canyon, about a quarter-mile and 1,000 vertical feet above the crash site.
“We spotted a ridge that looked like we could get down and that would get us close,” he said.
Armed with several 150-foot ropes, rescuers down climbed into the canyon, but “cliffed out” or ran out of anywhere to go about 150 feet above the canyon floor.
The men fixed a rope and rappelled in. They then hiked into the canyon about 500 feet before reaching the site.
A DPS helicopter airlifted the bodies out.
Pitterle and his men then climbed their way out, ascending 150 feet of rope before hiking out the rest of the way.