JASPER, Ala. (AP) -- 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. 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 him his own key. 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.
"He had used the plane many times before," she said.
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 cellphone 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.
A call to the National Transportation Safety Board was not immediately returned Wednesday.
Walker County Coroner J.C. Poe said the other two people killed in the crash were Brandon Tyler Ary, 19, and Jordan Seth Montgomery, 17.
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.
Banks said Smith had flown single-engine planes in the past, but the plane in the crash was a double-engine aircraft.
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.
Sherrie Smith said the plane was parked behind a security gate, but that her son had been given a security code to access it.
She also said her son had enough promise as a pilot that he'd already earned a scholarship to Wallace State Community College to study aviation.
"He started going to the airport when he was 14, and friends would take him up," she said.
Jordan Smith's father is an Alabama state trooper and member of the Alabama National Guard who is currently serving in Afghanistan.
"We were working on getting him his own plane when he was a senior," she said of her son.
The plane went down in a wooded, swampy area just over the fence from Margaret Swann's hay farm. She said training flights from the airport circle over her farm routinely and she guessed that Jordan Smith was flying the same pattern before the plane went down.
"It's just three kids making a wrong decision," she said.
Associated Press writers Jeff Martin and Phillip Lucas in Atlanta and AP researcher Judith Ausuebel in New York contributed to this report.