SIOUX FALLS, S.D. — A small airplane heading back to South Dakota after a Texas cattle sale crashed into a wind farm in foggy weather, killing the pilot and three passengers.
Elizabeth Cory, a spokeswoman for the Federal Aviation Administration, said the Piper 32 was traveling from Hereford, Texas, to Gettysburg, South Dakota. The single-engine plane was registered to Donald J. "D.J." Fischer of Gettysburg, according to the FAA.
The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating, but authorities have not released any details on the crash.
Authorities have not released the names of the victims, but Luce Funeral Home confirmed that Fischer, the 30-year-old pilot, died. Lien Funeral Home confirmed the deaths of cattlemen Brent Beitelspacher, of Bowdle, and Logan Rau, of Java.
The funeral home handling arrangements for the fourth victim said it could not release any information.
The three passengers were in Hereford to attend a sale of live cattle and embryos, primarily for the production of show steers, said Mike Mimms, a veterinarian who runs the annual event.
Mimms, who performs cattle embryo transfers, said he has probably bought 3,000 cows from Beitelspacher through telephone calls but hadn't had the opportunity to meet him until this past weekend.
"I got a Christmas card from him this Christmas," Mimms said. "It was the first time I even knew what he looked like, and he's standing there with his family with young kids. And I can't get that image out of my mind."
Fischer, a crop sprayer for Air Kraft Spraying Inc., followed in his father's footsteps into the aerial business and was extremely involved in his community, said state Rep. Corey Brown, R- Gettysburg.
Brown, a longtime family friend, said Fischer had just gotten married in March and was a volunteer emergency medical technician who was often out on calls.
"This is one of those things that's going to hit the community pretty hard, because I would venture to say there are probably are not many people here who D.J. didn't touch their life in some way," Brown said.
Fischer attended South Dakota State University and played defensive tackle for the school's football team from 2002-2005.
John Stiegelmeier, SDSU's head football coach, described Fischer as a gifted athlete who was a great friend to his teammates.
"I'm a small school guy and he was the same — phenomenal work ethic, phenomenal loyalty to the coaching staff and his teammates," Stiegelmeier said. "Whatever you asked D.J. to do, he did it, with a smile on his face, too. He didn't hesitate."
Mimms said the three cattlemen noted that they had a rough flight down to Texas due to high winds, and conditions were similar in Hereford when they left Sunday morning.
"They made it through the windy weather, and the fog was the problem when they got there," he said.
The wreckage was found Monday at the South Dakota Wind Energy Center, a site south of Highmore with 27 turbines that are about 213 feet tall, plus the length of the blade.
Steve Stengel, a spokesman with Florida-based NextEra Energy Inc., said there was damage to a turbine but he couldn't say what part of the tower was hit.
"It's been so foggy up there and we haven't had a chance to investigate," Stengel said Monday.
Fog and low clouds combined for reduced visibility in the Highmore area on Sunday night, and winds were out of the east at about 15 to 25 mph, said Renee Wise, meteorologist with the National Weather Service office in Aberdeen. There were also scattered showers across region Sunday night, and some might have been heavy at times, she said.
Mimms, said the news has sent shock and sadness through the close-knit ranching community.
"There are a lot of people out there who feel like they lost one of their best friends," Mimms said.
Similar conditions contributed to a 2008 crash in southeast Minnesota. Federal investigators concluded the pilot of a 1948 Cessna 140 lacked proper instrument training for the day's foul weather. The National Transportation Safety Board's probable cause report also noted the pilot's failure to maintain control of the airplane while maneuvering around a wind farm.
Follow Dirk Lammers on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/ddlammers
AP writer Carson Walker in Sioux Falls and researcher Judy Ausuebel in New York contributed to this story.