For 43-year-old John Witt, Friday's ill-fated flight from the Pine River airport was just one of many flights in his lifetime.

Witt was an experienced pilot, his mother Barbara Witt said, and he spent several years working as an airplane mechanic. He first worked as an apprentice under his late father, Tom Witt, and later took over the family business Witt's Aircraft Repair Services.

Witt was piloting his vintage Piper J-4A Cub aircraft when it crashed in a field one-quarter mile south of the airport at 6:35 p.m. Friday night. The crash killed him and a passenger, 32-year-old Stacy Sundquist, a single mother of three about to embark on a new phase of her nursing career.

"I know he died doing what he loved to do," Barbara Witt said. "He was afraid of heights, but yet, he could hop in a plane and go up a few thousand feet and it didn't bother him one bit."

Several witnesses reported the single-engine passenger plane took off from the airport on a course headed south and shortly after takeoff appeared to be "low and slow."

The plane crash remains under investigation by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB). The wreckage was removed Sunday to an NTSB facility in Minneapolis. An FAA official reported the entire investigation will likely take about a year to complete.

Although the Piper Cub was in the family for 50 years and was restored recently to its original appearance, Barbara Witt said her son rarely flew it, preferring instead to fly his Piper Tri-Pacer.

Witt's love for flying began early. After attending high school in Rockford, Minn., he joined the U.S. Air Force with dreams of becoming a pilot. He spent six or seven years in the service, Barbara Witt said, although his dream never quite came to fruition. Instead, he worked packing bombs into planes.

His time in the Air Force gave him his first taste of traveling. He visited England, Idaho and Alaska, but it was the latter locale he loved the most.

"He thought that it was magnificent," Barbara Witt said. "He just loved to go hunting and fishing up there."

As an over-the-road trucker later in life, Witt visited all corners of the country and parts of Canada, but he always returned to Pine River, where the other modes of transportation he loved awaited. Besides flying, Witt also enjoyed riding both a motorcycle and a bicycle. His enjoyment of trail riding stemmed from working as a baggage hauler with the Jaunt with Jim Klobuchar bike ride (now called the Tour of Minnesota).

"He would go on the Paul Bunyan Trail and ride to Hackensack, Walker," Barbara Witt said. "He really liked that, going out and just riding."

His mother said she was the only one who knew of his plans to fly Friday night.

"He told me, 'I'm gonna go flying for awhile so I'll see you later,'" she said. "I said, 'OK.' Well, I never saw him later, because that happened."

Sundquist, according to her sister, Jacki Cox, was nervous about the flight. She'd never flown with Witt before and feared crashing.

"My last text message to her, five minutes before they crashed was, 'It's going to be OK,'" Jacki Cox said.

Despite her fears, Jacki Cox and her husband Mike described Sundquist as outgoing and fun, always up for adventure. She was a mother of three children - Alexis, 14; Andrew, 11; and Hunter, 3 - and loved to help people, her sister said. She worked as a licensed practical nurse and had recently acquired a new position, but never got the chance for her new start.

"She was in the process of doing training right now," Mike Cox said. "She loved her job."

Sundquist grew up in Pine River and attended high school there, the daughter of Diane Sundquist and Brett Sundquist of California. She and sister Jacki did not become close until later in life, having grown up separately.

It was especially within the last year, Jacki and Mike Cox said, their families became nearly inseparable. The sisters enjoyed going to the casino together, but most of their activities revolved around having fun with their children - visiting Itasca State Park, having picnics, going swimming and going to the fair.

"The last couple months, we had really good times," Mike Cox said.

Jacki Cox has three small children of her own, and she and her husband said they are working on plans to care for Sundquist's kids.

"She told us over and over, like she knew something was going to happen, if anything ever happens she wanted us to take care of her kids for her," Mike Cox said. "We told her likewise, if anything ever happens to us."

Members of the Pine River community have rallied around the Witt and Sundquist families, with funds set up in both their names. Witt's fund will support funeral costs, while Sundquist's fund, "Stacy's Angels," is intended to be long-term savings for her children. To donate to Witt's fund, visit www.gofundme.com/qbrpxw, or to Sundquist's fund, visit www.gofundme.com/StacysAngels.

CHELSEY PERKINS may be reached at 855-5874 or chelsey.perkins@brainerddispatch.com. Follow on Twitter at www.twitter.com/DispatchChelsey.