SOUTH PORTLAND – Air traffic controllers across the nation Sunday mourned the death of one of their own, while investigators from the Federal Aviation Administration tried to determine what caused an airplane to crash in the Maine Mall area.

Mark Haskell, 42, an air traffic controller at the Portland International Jetport, was killed in the crash along with Thomas Casagrande, 66, a retired military test pilot who lived in Portland.

“It’s going to take a long time to get over this,” said Michael Wood, operations supervisor at the jetport’s control tower who has known Haskell for 18 years. “He was a big presence here.”

Haskell’s two-seat Aerostar Yak-52 crashed on Western Avenue in South Portland around 3:30 p.m. Saturday, shortly after taking off from the jetport.

Witnesses said the plane failed to gain altitude and banked to the left before hitting the road and tumbling in front of the Staples plaza near the corner of Maine Mall Road.

Nobody on the ground was injured, but Western Avenue was not reopened until 12:46 p.m. Sunday, according to South Portland police.

Paul Burke, a pilot and air traffic controller from Pittsfield, was a close friend and colleague of Haskell. Burke said Haskell and Casagrande were doing Haskell’s flight review, a federally required test that pilots take every two years to make sure their pilot’s licenses are current, when Haskell’s plane crashed. “Tom (Casagrande) is a highly respected pilot,” he said.

Paul Bradbury, director of the jetport, said Haskell had done several touch-and-goes — landings followed by another takeoff without stopping — earlier in the day, which he said is part of a pilot’s standard training routine.

Haskell was well-known within the aviation community, Bradbury said. He had worked as an air traffic controller in Portland for more than 19 years. He was married and had three young children.

“Mark’s death in this terrible accident leaves all of us who knew him and his deep love of aviation very shocked and saddened,” Paul Rinaldi, president of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, said Sunday. “We extend our deepest sympathies to Mark’s wife, Alison, his children, all of his family and friends, and his brothers and sisters at the Portland tower where he was loved and admired for his leadership, warm demeanor and sense of humor.”

Shaun Patten of Scarborough, an air traffic controller in Portland, met Haskell three years ago.

“He was just the nicest guy,” Patten said. “His smile greeted you every time you saw him. Not only was he a very dedicated and talented controller, he took new controllers under his wing and helped them out.”

Tim Frechette of Biddeford photographed Haskell at air shows in the region.

“The only reason someone would turn around that quickly (after takeoff) is if there were some type of mechanical malfunction,” Frechette said.

Frechette believes his friend crashed the plane on Western Avenue to avoid landing in a more heavily populated area such as the Maine Mall.

“Being an air traffic controller, Mark knew where everything was on the ground. He would have been concerned about causing a greater loss of life,” Frechette said.

Wood, the jetport’s operations supervisor, said he spoke Sunday with Haskell’s wife, Alison. “Alison told me today that her family has a very strong faith that will get them through this,” he said.

Haskell and his wife purchased the Yak-52 in 2001 from the Romanian Air Force 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.

On that same website (maineyak.net), the following message was posted Sunday:

“Tragically, Mark Haskell and Thomas Casagrande died July 17, 2010, when ‘Lizzy-Lou’ went down in South Portland, not far from the Portland jetport. It is unclear at this time why it went down. The investigation is ongoing.

“Mark was a kind, good natured, loving family man who loved to fly. God bless you Mark.”

Staff Writer Melanie Creamer contributed to this report.

Staff Writer Dennis Hoey can be contacted at 791-6365 or at:

[email protected]