SPANISH FORK, Utah -- As police departments from across the state attended Sgt. Derek Johnson’s funeral on Friday, the Utah County Sheriff’s Office began mourning the loss of one of their own.
Sgt. Jay Lessley, 40, was killed Friday morning in a small plane crash near Spanish Fork airport.
“It’s one of those things when you think, ‘when is this going to end?’” said Sgt. Spencer Cannon, Lessley’s long time boss and friend.
For about three years, Lessley had been piloting search and rescue operations for the Sheriff’s Office. One of his many accomplishments, Cannon said, during his nearly ten year career with the department.
According to authorities, Lessley was off duty on Friday, volunteering as a test pilot, when the small experimental plane he was controlling suddenly crashed on private farm land west of the airport around 8:00 a.m.
Many of Lessley’s colleagues were preparing to pay their respects to Sgt. Johnson when they were notified of the accident.
“Most people who were involved in this investigation of the crash today were getting ready to attend the funeral of Sgt. Derek Johnson this morning,” said Cannon. “It just compounds the tragedy having it happen at a time when we’re giving so much focus to another law enforcement officer, who heroically gave his life protecting his community.”
Friday’s ride was the fourth one Lessley had done for the plane manufacturing company, SkyCraft, which is based in Orem. According to company spokesman Paul Glavin, Lessley was testing the somewhat rare SD-1 plane, kit-built by a private owner.
“This is the first one built in the U.S. There are about 25 of them flying around the world,” Glavin said.
Prior to taking off, Glavin said Lessley met with other company staff to discuss the flight path for the morning. However, about 15 minutes into the test, Glavin said Lessley veered slightly off course from the agenda.
“He was performing a maneuver called an aileron roll, where he rolls the airplane 360 degrees, and this is not an approved maneuver in the aircraft,” Glavin said.
After one successful completion of the turn, onlookers were both surprised and excited by what the plane could do, but as Lessley attempted a second one, the aircraft responded differently.
“Then, on his second effort of performing this maneuver, something apparently did not go correctly,” Glavin said.
While he would not speculate on what happened, Glavin said something could have malfunctioned inside the plane because it was not structured to operate in such a manner.
As the plane descended, Lessley attempted to use the parachute, but Glavin said it did not deploy properly.
“Based on the speed and condition of the aircraft, it was not a successful deployment of the parachute,” he said. “It worries us that it did not work in this case and had tragic consequences, but it is very likely that the aircraft was not suited for an appropriate deployment of the parachute.”
Lessley leaves behind a wife and daughter. The National Transportation Security Board is investigating the crash.