The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) released a preliminary report Tuesday outlining its investigation of the December 26 helicopter crash near Green Cove Springs, Florida, that killed the pilot and two passengers on a medical mission to retrieve a donor heart.
According to Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) data, the Bell 206B helicopter owned by SK Jets, radioed Jacksonville air controllers at 5:49 a.m. to inquire about the status of restricted air space. The controller responded at 5:50 that the restricted areas were inactive. Pilot E. Hoke Smith, 68, acknowledged the transmission and continued to fly on a southwest path toward Gainesville to retrieve the organ. No distress calls or other communications were sent from the helicopter.
Mayo Clinic personnel in Jacksonville awaited the helicopter’s arrival and alerted authorities when the flight failed to show. An aircraft dispatched by the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office found the wreckage about four hours later in a densely wooded area about 12 miles north of Palatka, Florida. The last radar target on the helicopter was recorded at 5:53 a.m.
The NTSB reported noted the debris field “originated with several trees that were severed by breaks at descending altitudes,” with the first strike occurring at an altitude of about 30 feet. From that impact site, the wreckage continued for 320 feet, indicating the helicopter didn’t fall out of the sky but was traveling in a controlled descent. The crash sparked a fire in the wooded area that consumed 80 percent of the debris.
Heart surgeon Dr. Luis Bonilla, 49, and technician David Hines, 57, were fatally injured along with pilot Smith.
Conditions in the area at the time of the crash were overcast and misty. A lawyer specializing in aircraft crashes told Jacksonville station News 4 he believes the pilot lost visual perspective.
“I think he clipped a tree … He clipped a rather high, large tree, and after that, if you knock your [rotor] system out of balance, you’re just along for the ride.”
Judging from the flight trajectory, debris field, and other factors, the lawyer told News 4 “it means the pilot thought he was here when he wasn’t here, and he flew it into the ground.”
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.
The NTSB investigation is ongoing and may take up to a year and a half to complete.