A medical transport flight carrying a donor heart to a recipient in Jacksonville, Florida, crashed into a wooded area of north Florida around 6:00 Monday morning, killing the pilot, a heart surgeon, and an organ procurement technician.
National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) investigators continue to probe the crash, which occurred in a densely wooded and remote area of Florida about 45 miles northeast of Gainesville. The Bell 206 helicopter was en route to Shands’ LifeQuest Organ Recovery Service at the University of Florida in Gainesville to pick up a donor heart when it crashed.
Although no flight plan was filed, the helicopter was supposed to return to the Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville where the heart patient was awaiting delivery of the organ. A spokesperson for the Mayo Clinic said that the window of time for using the heart had expired and that the would-be recipient was put back on the waiting list.
The crash set several acres of the dense forest ablaze, which helped emergency responders pinpoint the helicopter’s location but impeded recovery efforts. All bodies were eventually recovered from the crash site. Pilot E. Hoke Smith, 67, heart surgeon Dr. Luis Bonilla, 49, and technician David Hines, 57, were declared dead at the scene.
Smith’s son, Derrick Smith, told the Associated Press that his father was a decorated Vietnam War veteran who piloted several combat missions. A pilot since he was 16 years old, Mr. Smith founded SK Jets in 1997 to provide medical transport services. The company launched with one helicopter, with Mr. Smith the sole owner and operator, and steadily grew to include seven jets, two helicopters, and 40 employees.
Derrick Smith, who serves as the company’s general manager, said that his father would usually work over the holidays so that his employees could have the time off to spend with their families. His accolades included the Purple Heart, the Bronze Star, and the Distinguished Flying Cross.
National Transportation Safety Board authorities haven’t determined what caused the helicopter to crash. The National Weather Service in Jacksonville reported light fog and overcast skies with no rain in the area at the time the aircraft crashed.