SOUTH PORTLAND – Two men were killed Saturday when a small single-engine plane crashed on Western Avenue shortly after takeoff.

The Aerostar Yak-52 took off at 3:30 p.m. heading west but gained little altitude and soon banked sharply to the left, witnesses said.

The plane hit the road and tumbled, coming to rest on Western Avenue in front of the Staples plaza near the corner of Maine Mall Road.

Nobody on the ground was injured, but rescue workers expected the road to be closed until midday today as the Federal Aviation Administration and the National Transportation Safety Board investigate. South Portland police also are conducting an investigation, though the cause of the crash will likely be determined by the federal agencies.

The plane that crashed is an uncommon model, designed by the Soviet Union as an aerobatics trainer and air show aircraft. The plane features a two-person cockpit, one sitting in front of the other.

The plane was light blue, with red stars on the tail, wing and nose.

Officials identified the occupants as Mark Haskell, 42, of Brunswick and Thomas Casagrande, 66, of Portland.

The plane was registered to Haskell, an air traffic controller for more than 20 years.

Haskell and his wife, Alison, purchased the plane in 2001 and named it Lizzy-Lou after their daughter, who was born on the same day they signed the contract, according to a website about the plane.

“Based primarily out of Auburn/Lewiston and Portland, Maine airports, she now flies to honor our vets past and present,” the website maineyak.net reads. “The rear fuselage markings honor Warren H. Haskell, who served in the Army Amphibian Corps of Engineers in the South Pacific in WW II.”

Witnesses reported seeing the plane flying low over the Redbank neighborhood earlier in the afternoon, its engine whine distinctive, like a World War II fighter, they said.

Courtney Lowe, who works at the Dunkin’ Donuts across the street from the crash, was taking a break when she saw the plane take off at 3:30 p.m. Workers at the Jetport Variety store located at the end of the runway next to the Dunkin’ Donuts said they see many planes taking off and this one caught their attention.

“He was very low to the ground,” she said.

Chuck Kelley was on nearby Darling Avenue headed to work when the plane passed close overhead.

“He just missed the top of the building,” he said. “All you could see was the belly of the plane,” as it banked sharply to the left. “I thought it was an air show,” he said.

Moments after Lowe ducked back inside Dunkin’ Donuts, someone came in screaming that a plane had crashed and to call 911.

Tanar Stalker, who works at Jetport Variety, responded by grabbing a fire extinguisher and running to the badly damaged plane.

The engine had stopped but he could hear the pinging sound of metal contracting.

“As soon as I was within 15 feet I immediately recognized both of them were dead,” he said.

“All the glass had been broken out of it and the bars that hold the glass in were crumpled down,” he said. It looked like the plane had rolled before coming to rest on its belly.

Afterward, Stalker left work early.

“It just shook me up,” he said.

The wreckage was to remain on the scene until today, South Portland Chief Edward Googins said.

He urged motorists to stay away from Western Avenue until the on-scene investigation is completed.

Staff Writer David Hench can be contacted at 791-6327 or at:

dhench@pressherald.com