The family of a medical technician who was killed when the heart-transplant helicopter he was on crashed December 26 is suing the helicopter’s owners and operator saying they hope others may be spared having to experience such a “horrible, horrible” loss. The daughters of 57-year-old David Hines, a Mayo clinic organ procurement technician, filed the wrongful death lawsuit against Abraham Holdings, the helicopter’s owner, and SK Logistics and SK Jets, the aircraft’s operators. Pilot E. Hoke Smith, the 68-year-old owner of the SK companies, was flying the Bell 206B helicopter to Gainesville, Florida, on an early morning mission to retrieve a donor heart when it made what appeared to be a “controlled descent” into the ground. Mr. Smith, Mr. Hines, and heart surgeon Dr. Luis Bonilla, 49, were killed.
Although an investigation of the crash continues, a preliminary NTSB report 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 before it crashed in a densely wooded area near Green Cove Springs, Florida.
An attorney for the plaintiffs told the Florida Times-Union that “information that was available from the crash scene suggests that this is an operational negligence situation and the lawsuit enables the family to subpoena to get information that SK Logistics until now has declined to give us.”
“We know that the overcast ceiling was as low as 300 feet above the ground and that there was ground fog,” the attorney told Florida’s First Coast News. “The area where this occurred is a dark area with few lights. It is easy for a pilot to become spatially disoriented, and what occurred is called controlled flight into terrain, which means the pilot operating the aircraft … is unaware of his altitude.”
The lawyer also noted that the helicopter lacked a radar altimeter which would have warned the pilot how close to the ground he was flying – an especially vital tool to have on low-flying flights.
The plaintiffs also question why the heart was to be transported to Shands Hospital in Jacksonville considering the adverse weather conditions that morning when there was enough time to make the trip by ambulance. “There is no flight important enough that’s worth the lives of its passengers,” the plaintiffs’ lawyer told First Coast News.