Jordan Smith fell in love with flying at an early age and was just one test short of earning his private license when the small plane he was piloting crashed after taking off from the county airport, his mother said.
The owner of the Piper PA 30 had given the 17-year-old high school junior his own key and the code to a security gate behind which it was parked, Sherrie Smith said.
"He had used the plane many times before," Smith told The Associated Press on Wednesday. "We were working on getting him his own plane when he was a senior."
The plane went down Tuesday night less than a mile from the Walker County Airport in Jasper, northwest of Birmingham, the Federal Aviation Administration said. Jordan Smith was killed, along with two teens whom Walker County Coroner J.C. Poe identified as Brandon Tyler Ary, 19, and Jordan Seth Montgomery, 17.
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 said.
A call to the National Transportation Safety Board was not returned Wednesday.
The plane had departed from the small airport about 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.
The crash happened 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.
Smith said her son had left the house about 6 p.m. Tuesday 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.
Jordan Smith had enough promise as a pilot that he'd already earned a scholarship to Wallace State Community College to study aviation, Sherrie Smith said.
"He started going to the airport when he was 14, and friends would take him up."
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.
Jordan Smith's father is an Alabama state trooper and member of the Alabama National Guard who is currently serving in Afghanistan.
Associated Press writers Jeff Martin and Phillip Lucas in Atlanta and AP researcher Judith Ausuebel in New York contributed to this report.