Rural crop duster John Werth, 70, was killed Tuesday morning when his plane crashed shortly after taking off from his airstrip near his home northwest of Schoenchen.

Werth was headed out to spray a field of sunflowers west of his airstrip, according to his first cousin, Mike Werth, who discovered the crash and called it in.

The plane, a 1985 Grumman Ag Cat bi-wing, went down in a road ditch amongst the rolling hills of the Smoky Hill River Valley southwest of Hays a little more than a mile west of U.S. Highway 183.

The plane was upside down in a ditch on Smoky Hill River Road, just west of the intersection with 240th Avenue, not far from Rock Haven Spa.

The cause of the crash isn’t yet known, according to Kansas Highway Patrol Trooper Tod Hileman, a spokesman for KHP, the law enforcement agency initially called in to investigate. The crash scene is now under control of the National Transportation Safety Board, Hileman said, and investigators are awaiting officials from the Federal Aviation Administration. Family members released the name, which was later officially reported by KHP's Hileman.

In discovering the crash around 9:15 a.m., Mike Werth said he was heading north into Hays on 240th when he saw black smoke coming from the area of a nearby pasture. When he drove up to check he found the plane engulfed in flames. Knowing John Werth’s airstrip was just up the hill, he then called Charlene Werth, John Werth’s wife.

“I couldn’t quite make out what it was at first,” said Werth. “I saw wheels sticking up and I saw a wing, a yellow wing, and it was fully engulfed when I got there. I checked if there was any people laying on the outside, because that was the only hope, and didn’t see anybody, and I called 911 and I called Charlene.”

Werth indicated he sensed the worst.

“I knew but I didn’t want to believe it,” he said. “I told her that there was a plane crash and I told her where it’s at, and I said ‘Is Johnny at home safe?’ and she said ‘No, he went to spray sunflowers.’ I said ‘Well it’s a yellow plane’ and she said ‘well, I’ll come on down.’”

Ellis County Rural Fire responders were on the scene, along with officers from the Ellis County Sheriff’s Department, including Sheriff Ed Harbin, and state troopers.

Werth said the plane fire burned itself out.

Hileman said there were crop dusting chemicals on board the plane, and that responders from the Ellis County Rural Fire Department were dealing with those.

“I wish I coulda helped,” Mike Werth said, “but there was just no way.”