BISMARCK, N.D. – A North Dakota lawmaker who had recently received his commercial pilot’s license was flying his own small plane home from a family celebration in Arizona when it crashed in Utah, killing him, his wife and their two young sons, family members said Tuesday.
It was the first time state Sen. Doug Larsen of Mandan, and his family had flown his single-engine Piper Cherokee to visit his sister in Scottsdale, Arizona. Peggy Steimel said he made the trip so he could be part of her sendoff before she deployed for about a year overseas with the Arizona National Guard.
Larsen had been a Black Hawk helicopter pilot in the North Dakota National Guard, and Steimel recalled how he gave her some good advice about how to cope.
“He gave me a hug and we said we loved each other — and said, ‘Stay safe.’”
Larsen, his wife, Amy, and the two boys died later Sunday when his plane crashed shortly after takeoff from a refueling stop at Canyonlands Airfield near the desert recreation town of Moab, Utah. The senator was piloting the plane, according to the Grand County Sheriff’s Office.
Steimel identified the sons as 11-year-old Christian and 8-year-old Everett.
The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating the crash, with a preliminary report expected in two weeks.
Federal Aviation Administration records show that Larsen’s Piper PA-28-140, popularly known as a “Cherokee,” was built in 1966. Its airworthiness certificate was renewed in June through 2030, indicating it had passed a safety inspection. The Piper Cherokee family is one of the most widely produced planes in general aviation. Larsen bought it to gain flying experience toward getting his commercial license, close friend Joe Faller said.
Faller, who served with Larsen in the Guard, was best man at Doug and Amy’s wedding and a godparent to Christian. He said Larsen flew him from Minnesota to Bismarck, North Dakota, in his plane last month.
“For the three hours that we were on the plane, that’s all he talked about,” Faller said. “He told me all the things about the plane: exactly how this works, where we were at. He had a passion for that.”
The weather at the time of the crash was mild, with scattered light showers, wide visibility and gentle winds in the area around the airport, according to the National Weather Service. Aerial video posted by KSL-TV of Salt Lake City, Utah, showed the plane went down in a desert area devoid of vegetation, and sustained extensive damage to the nose area and right wing. It came to rest upright.
“He was so careful. When I flew with him, he would check everything before he’d take off. He was very, very serious about that,” said Danielle Hilzendeger, another one of Larsen’s sisters.
Steimel said that during the extended family’s weekend together, they did a family photo shoot, ate pizza from a local restaurant, swam in the pool in her backyard, listened to music by Jimmy Buffet, and played baseball together.
Steimel also said her mom joked that they should prepare a “last meal” of Steimel’s favorite foods before she deployed. So they had a Midwestern-style family dinner with ham, hash brown casserole, broccoli salad and pumpkin pie.
“When I tell you that we had the best weekend together as a family, it truly was — we had so much fun together. We thought we were preparing to say goodbye to me … not Doug, Amy and the boys,” Steimel said in a follow-up message.
Larsen flew Black Hawk helicopters as part of his 29 years of service with the North Dakota Army National Guard, according to Republican state Sens. Jim Roers, a longtime licensed pilot, and Mike Wobbema, a retired military aviator.
A Guard spokesman said Larsen had logged about 1,776 total military flight hours.
Roers said he and Larsen connected over their mutual love of aviation, and earlier this year talked about Larsen becoming a commercial pilot. He said Larsen “absolutely embraced the idea,” and that he then introduced Larsen to a veteran United Airlines pilot and trainer.
Roers said Larsen had recently earned his commercial pilot’s license, and had received at least one job offer from commuter airlines, with a goal of flying for a major airline. An FAA record shows a pilot with the same name and similar flight experience as Larsen had obtained a commercial pilot certificate on Sept. 15.
In the North Dakota statehouse, Rep. Paul Thomas and Sen. Cole Conley offered tributes to Larsen on Tuesday after about 20 lawmakers had gathered for a routine meeting. The room observed a moment of silence.
Thomas and Conley both entered the Legislature in 2020 with Larsen, a fellow Republican, and recounted their early days at the Capitol with him.
Thomas commended Larsen’s North Dakota National Guard career and his service to others.
“Sen. Larsen was what we all here aspired to be as servants to our members and our district as well as our friends and family,” Thomas said.
Conley said Larsen loved to host events, inviting colleagues to his home in Mandan, and cooking tacos, chili and other meals for Senate caucus meetings. Larsen also once offered to find Conley a car when his broke down.
Larsen represented a district encompassing Mandan, which neighbors Bismarck to the west across the Missouri River. He chaired a Senate panel that handled industry- and business-related legislation.
Larsen mobilized with the military twice, to Iraq from 2009-10 and to Washington, D.C., from 2013-14, according to the governor’s office. He was awarded the Meritorious Service Medal, Bronze Service Star and Army Aviator Badge, among other honors.
He and Amy Larsen owned businesses that included a hotel and a home-building company.
District Republicans will appoint a successor to fill out the remainder of Larsen’s term, through November 2024. Party Chair Sandi Sanford said an appointment will probably come after funeral services, “out of respect.” Larsen’s Senate seat is on the ballot next year.
Ahmed reported from Minneapolis. Associated Press writer Steve Karnowski in Minneapolis contributed to this report.