ZEPHYRHILLS — Authorities say a newlywed, her 7-year-old daughter and the pilot flying her husband's company plane were the victims of a fiery plane crash in eastern Pasco County on Friday night.
Pilot-for-hire Thomas Scott Long, 44, of Hudson, Tina Copeland, 46, and her daughter Cami died in the crash, the Pasco County Sheriff's Office said Saturday.
Friends said Long was hired to fly Copeland and her daughter from Gainesville to Lakeland to spend the weekend with Bob Stallings, whose company, Citrus Aviation Inc., owns the single-engine plane.
But about 8:30 p.m., Long reported problems aboard the 1998 Piper Malibu and declared the need for an emergency landing. Air traffic controllers directed the pilot to the nearest airport, Zephyrhills, but the six-seater plane did not make it.
Air traffic controllers lost communication with Long about 3 miles from the airport, and the plane went down in flames in a swampy area near U.S. 98 about 3 miles north of County Road 54, only three-quarters of a mile from the spot where Long had intended to land.
On Saturday, friends and family mourned the losses.
Long was an experienced pilot who'd enjoyed a career as a pilot-for-hire for many years, said brother, Brian Long. He flew for several commuter companies and split his time between Lakeland and Hudson, where his mother lives.
"He was a father and a friend and a good person. And he loved to fly. That's what he lived for and that's what he did," Brian Long said. "His motto was, 'No matter what, there's always blue skies.'"
Tina Copeland and Stallings married in Las Vegas a week before the crash, but the two had been friends for years, said her ex-husband, Matt Copeland, who is Cami's father.
He said his daughter loved to sing, especially songs from Miley Cyrus and Taylor Swift. She also loved horses.
"She was on horseback with me at 6 weeks," Matt Copeland said. "She loved being outside and riding horses, just the two of us. She was the light of my life."
Matt and Tina Copeland divorced in April, but the two shared custody of Cami and lived in side-by-side houses in Archer, near Gainesville, Matt Copeland said.
Tina Copeland had two sons from another marriage, and Cami also had a half brother and half sister on her father's side.
"She wished her mom and dad would have been together, but she was a happy kid," Matt Copeland said.
Matt Copeland said his ex-wife, who worked in customer service and billing for a Gainesville wheelchair company, intended to keep her home for Cami and split her time between Archer and Lakeland. The commute would have been easy with her husband's plane, he said.
The Pasco County Sheriff's Office said the Medical Examiner's Office will make the final confirmation on the identities of the victims, whose bodies were badly burned in the crash. That may take several days.
The National Transportation Safety Board and the Federal Aviation Administration are both investigating the crash.
A representative from Piper Malibu and the company that manufactures the plane's engine also are investigating, said Bob Gretz, a senior federal air safety investigator.
A preliminary crash report will be available in about a week on the agency's Web site, www.ntsb.gov, he said. It could take six to 12 months for investigators to process information such as air traffic and pilot records before probable cause of the accident can be determined.
Times staff writer Camille C. Spencer contributed to this report.