A man was killed and two others survived when their plane crashed into the Mazatzal Mountains south of Payson Friday morning.
The men, all of Mesa, were reportedly returning to the Valley after stopping in Payson to refuel when their plane dropped off the radar around 9:12 a.m., according to Sgt. Dennis Newman with the Gila County Sheriff’s Office.
Passenger Blaine Mathews, 59, died in the crash while pilot Colten Egbert, 21, and passenger Spencer Berns, 29, survived.
The men had left the Valley’s Falcon Field earlier in the morning, flown around the Mazatzal Mountains reportedly scouting for wildlife and stopped in Payson. After refueling, they took off at 9 a.m. and reportedly continued to scout near North Peak of the Mazatzals.
Investigators from the Federal Aviation Administration have radar information showing where the plane traveled. It appears it went up a canyon and lost altitude possibly when a wing tip touched some vegetation, said Deputy Cole LaBonte, who was on scene Saturday as the FAA and National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) investigated.
Newman said Egbert told rescuers they had hit a tree. Newman said it is unclear if striking a tree caused the crash or if the plane hit a tree as it was crashing.
LaBonte said there was roughly a 50-foot debris field in the canyon with the plane appearing to have turned 180 degrees before crashing into City Creek. The plane then caught fire.
How and when Egbert and Berns got out is still unclear, but investigators speculate they may have crawled out just after the plane crashed and then lost consciousness.
“We speculate they bailed out, went into shock and passed out and the plane caught fire,” LaBonte said.
The crash was unreported for some six hours.
After Egbert and Berns reportedly regained consciousness, Egbert scrambled to find a cellphone. Around 3 p.m., Egbert called 911 reporting his Piper PA-28 had crashed.
“He said, ‘We need help, we need a helicopter,’” said Newman. “He said, ‘My plane is shredded.’”
The men also activated the crash position indicator, which had not turned on when the plane crashed. It sends out a homing signal.
The Arizona Department of Public Safety Ranger helicopter airlifted Egbert, who had an injured ankle, and Berns, who had a severely broken leg, out to a landing zone, which had been set up in a large turnoff south of Payson on State Route 87.
Native Air and PHI Air Medical then airlifted the men to a Valley hospital. DPS then flew LaBonte in to recover Mathews’ body.
Sheriff J. Adam Shepherd said it is an ongoing investigation and they may release more information as it becomes available.
Shepherd thanked the Department of Public Safety, Native Air, PHI and Life Line Ambulance for their coordinating response.
He extended condolences to the “families affected by this tragic loss.”