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Utah Highway Patrol Trooper Jay Watkins had never driven up Butterfield Canyon before, so he decided to familiarize himself with the terrain during his Thursday morning shift.

Several miles in, the road climbs high into the Oquirrh Mountains. As Watkins glanced left over his shoulder into the steep U-shaped valley below, he spotted a small yellow airplane making a sharp right turn. It was losing altitude fast. A pilot himself, Watkins said it appeared the plane "had nowhere to go" and was making a last-ditch attempt to escape.

By the time he reached a higher vantage point, a smoke plume was rising from the valley below.

"My heart kind of sank, and I knew something had happened," Watkins said.

Two men were killed when the Aviat A-1B Husky went down just before 10 a.m. A Department of Public Safety helicopter called to the scene by Watkins quickly confirmed the fatalities, Unified Police Lt. Brian Lohrke said. It remained unclear late Thursday what led to the crash as investigators from UPD, the Federal Aviation Administration and the National Transportation Safety Board probed the rugged terrain where the accident occurred.

UPD officials said the men appeared to be ages 34 and 37, pending official confirmation from a medical examiner.

The two-seater plane had taken off from West Jordan's South Valley Regional Airport, airport spokeswoman Nancy Volmer said. She was unsure where the plane was headed.

The crash site was just south of the Kennecott Copper Mine property. A Girl Scout camp is near the crash site but was not damaged, Lohrke said.

The plane caught fire, but the flames were quickly extinguished, he said.

Watkins said it appeared the plane was traveling west in the canyon, and tried to turn around to avoid running into a mountain. "It looked like they banked right ... but they were losing altitude."

Watkins has witnessed a plane crash before — from the cockpit.

On Jan. 1, 2003, he was in flight school, on a training run to Cedar City with his instructor. On the way back, they were flying low in the dark. Watkins recalls asking his instructor if perhaps they were too low. The instructor said no.

As they passed Minersville, Watkins said, "we literally just flew straight into the mountain."

Both men escaped with broken bones, along with some frostbite and hypothermia after surviving the night in freezing temperatures. Rescuers in a helicopter found them in the morning.

As Watkins watched the smoke rise Thursday, "it was a flood of emotions and memories coming right back," he said.

"My heart just goes out to the family, because I understand some of the emotions — wondering where they're at, what happened."

Twitter: @lramseth