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A teen pilot and his passenger were seen waving to people moments before they crashed, report says

A two-seat, single-engine plane was removed from the Red Cedar River in Barron County on May 25, a day after it crashed, killing the teenage pilot and injuring his passenger. Pamela Powers / Eau Claire Leader-Telegram

CHETEK, Wis. — Two witnesses said they heard a "pop" noise from the engine just before a plane crashed into the Red Cedar River May 24, killing the pilot and injuring the passenger, according to a preliminary government report.

Pilot Owen Knutson, 17, a Chetek-Weyerhaeuser High School junior, died at the scene of the crash of the Piper J3C, a two-seat, single-engine plane. Passenger Hunter Gillett, 18, a senior at Cameron High School, sustained serious injuries. Both teens were pulled from the wreckage in the river. Gillett was taken by air ambulance to a hospital in Rochester, Minn., where he was treated for ankle, facial and other in injuries.

The National Transportation Safety Board released a preliminary report on the accident earlier this month. According to the report, investigators interviewed several witnesses who were fishing in a pond near the river when the plane flew overhead.

One witness said a door to the airplane was open, and Knutson and Gillett were "waving at them."

According to the report:

The plane then continued to the north and started a turn to the right. Two witnesses reported hearing the "pop" noise from the engine, a noise they characterized as a backfire. One witness said the engine "was at a lower rpm as the plane flew over him."

After the "pop" was heard, the airplane "descended below the tree line and the witnesses heard the crash."

The airplane was pulled from the river and showed sustained substantial damage in the crash, with no evidence of fire or explosion in the wreckage.

Weather at the time of the accident, recorded at the nearby Chetek Municipal-Southworth Airport, was recorded to be 10 miles visibility, wind speed of 3 knots and a broken cloud ceiling at 4,100 feet.

The plane took off from a private runway at Knutson's family home along Highway I. The wreckage was located in the river about three miles south of Chetek.

Knutson held a private pilot's license.

In its report the NTSB notes that preliminary findings are subject to change and may contain errors, which are corrected when the final report is published. The final report can take a year or more to complete.

Last week, Gillett's mother, Melissa Klump, provided an update via social media on her son's medical condition:

"Hunter has been home, relaxing and enjoying company. He continues to make improvements everyday," adding that he has weekly lab appointments and recently went to the Cameron High School football field to visit with players.

"Although Hunter has a lot of recovery time left, he gets a little better each day. Fortunately, Hunter will make a full recovery from these injuries," she wrote. "We thank God every day for all the hurdles that Hunter has overcome, it's a miracle that he's here with us today."

Gillett, who has had lower back, facial and ankle surgeries, returned home June 15.

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