JASPER, Ala. A teen pilot killed along with two friends in an Alabama plane crash had his own key to the aircraft and had flown it many times, his mother said Wednesday, denying authorities' assertion that the plane had been taken without permission.
Sherrie Smith said her 17-year-old son Jordan Smith was the one flying the plane that went down in the Alabama woods Tuesday night, killing the him and two other male teens. The Federal Aviation Administration said the Piper PA 30 crashed less than a mile from the Walker County Airport in Jasper, which is northwest of Birmingham.
Smith says the owner of the plane had let her son fly it many other times and had given her son his own key.
"He had used the plane many times before," she said.
She said her son was a high school junior who fell in love with flying at an early age and was one test short of earning his private pilot's license.
Her son had left the house around 6 p.m. to meet some friends at another airport in the area, and she said she last spoke to him by cell phone about four hours later. One of her son's friends called later about reports of a plane crash, and she tried to reach Jordan again but couldn't.
Walker County sheriff's Chief Deputy James Painter said earlier Wednesday that authorities believed the three teenagers took off in the plane without permission.
"We don't know for sure but we think it was some teenagers who stole the plane and were sort of joyriding it," Painter told The Associated Press. "They got it in and took off and didn't go very far."
Authorities hadn't confirmed the names of the other two who were killed by late Wednesday.
The plane had departed from the small airport around 10:30 p.m. in overcast skies and a low cloud ceiling, airport manager Edwin Banks said.
"It was a student pilot flying an airplane without permission, an airplane that he was not qualified to fly at night," Banks said.
The teenage pilot had flown a single-engine airplane in the past "and he got in a double-engine at night in bad weather with a couple of his buddies," Banks said.
The Piper PA 30 is also called a Piper Twin Comanche. It is a low-wing plane with two propellers and can seat four to six, depending on the model.
The planes were built from 1963 until 1972, and were popular with flight schools because of their fuel efficiency and relatively inexpensive price tags, according to the International Comanche Society, an enthusiasts' group.